The US does not want a repeat of last year’s flu season, a government hearing heard this week, with Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield, pointing out that “this past year, the American people listened to the media’s troubling portrayals of the shortage, and they panicked.” However, the panel members have again questioned the availability of vaccines for the 2005/6 period.

The furore of last year was triggered when the UK’s drug regulator, the MHRA, pulled the plug on production of Chiron’s flu vaccine after contaminated lots were found at its plant in Liverpool – cutting the US stockpile in half [[06/10/04b]]. The government had originally planned to have a stockpile of 100 million doses to combat flu, but was short of 48 million after the MHRA’s decision, leaving it scrabbling to fill the gap. GlaxoSmithKline stepped in to offer its Fluarix vaccine, but that is still in the US approval process [[10/12/04d]]. In fact, only two other flu vaccines are approved in the USA – one from Sanofi-Aventis and the second from MedImmune – and, although the USA did manage to secure additional supplies from these suppliers [[20/10/04d]], [[25/10/04e]], it was still left with a significant 39 million-dose shortfall. In the end, though, the flu season proved mild and leftover doses had to be destroyed.

Chiron has already said that it hopes to provide sufficient vaccine for next season, but has admitted it was difficult to predict the number it would be able to produce [[04/03/05b]] after being given the nod in March to restart production [[03/03/05a]]. “Millions of Americans will want a flu vaccination come this fall, and I think I can promise you that many are wondering right now whether their vaccine will be available,” said Committee on Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton.

- Meanwhile, an article in this week’s British Medical Journal claims politicians are burying their heads in the sand and failing to address the global threat of avian flu. General Practitioner Dr Higson argues that the disaster of the recent tsunami would “pale into insignificance” compared to the human cost of an influenza pandemic. He calls for Governments to fund the rapid development of vaccines to combat avian flu, and for each country to build a stockpile of antiviral medicines.