Some 40 million doses of H1N1 vaccine to be destroyed

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As much as 43% of the U.S. swine flu vaccine supply may ultimately go unused — and be destroyed — according to a new report from the Associated Press. Roughly 40 million doses, or one quarter of the total supply produced by the U.S. to cope with the outbreak, have already expired and will be incinerated by public health authorities. According to the AP, the expired H1N1 vaccine represents a loss of about $260 million.

The currently expired doses — some of which expired this week — represent a leftover supply four times that of the standard surplus of seasonal flu vaccine. As Jerry Weir, director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s division of viral products, told the AP: “It’s a lot, by historical standards.”

Yet in addition to the roughly 40 million doses that have already expired, the AP reports that another 30 million will likely go unused and eventually expire — meaning that a total of 43% of the swine flu vaccine supply will be wasted.

The expiration of vaccines comes as the World Health Organization (WHO) has faced heated criticism over decisions to elevate the swine flu outbreak to the level of global pandemic, spurring countries and public health agencies to stockpile huge stores of the vaccine. A recent investigation of the circumstances surrounding the WHO decision in June 2009 found that three of the scientists who advised the international health body on swine flu protocol had ties to the pharmaceutical companies that manufactured the vaccines. And a report released by the Council of Europe in early June condemned the organization’s handling of the outbreak, saying that it was disproportionate to risk, resulted in unnecessary cost and created a culture of fear among European residents.

Yet WHO inspector general Margaret Chan has since denied that pharmaceutical company ties influenced swine flu policy decisions, and public health officials have argued that the swift action to stockpile vaccines was warranted at the time that the outbreak was escalating. Speaking to the Telegraph about a new report examining the swine flu outbreak in the U.K., Dame Deirdre Hine, a former chief medical officer for Wales who conducted the analysis, said that the response was “proportionate and effective” and explained:

“If the UK government had not responded to the unexpected threat. Had it turned out to be more severe then we would have been having a very different press conference today.”

That sentiment has been expressed by many other public health officials, including WHO inspector general Chan. Responding to questions about the large stockpiles of vaccine that went unused in the U.S., Bill Hall, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told the AP:

“Although there were many doses of vaccine that went unused, it was much more appropriate to have been prepared for the worst case scenario than to have had too few doses.”

After the swine flu outbreak started gathering speed in April 2009, and was officially declared a global pandemic by the WHO in June of that year, the U.S. ordered nearly 200 million doses of swine flu vaccine. Yet, the AP points out, for several reasons — tests showing that just one dose was effective for most people, late arrival of the vaccine after the peak of swine flu danger had passed, and the simple fact that the pandemic wasn’t ultimately as deadly as public health groups had feared — the demand never caught up to the supply.