Congress provides $99 million to aid flu vaccine production

Dec 17, 2004 (CIDRAP News) – Pushed by this year's influenza vaccine crisis, Congress recently approved $99 million to improve the nation's capacity to produce influenza vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The funds are intended to promote the production of flu vaccine with cell-culture technology and to ensure that a supply of eggs is available year-round for conventional production of flu vaccine, said CDC spokeswoman Kathryn Harben in Atlanta. The appropriation was included in the $388 billion omnibus spending bill that was signed by President Bush Dec 8.

Harben said there were no current plans to use any of the money to buy more flu vaccine for this season. The government recently announced plans to buy 1.2 million doses of a German-made vaccine to boost this year's supply.

The $99 million appropriation for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is intended to "spur development of domestic production of a licensed cell-culture flu vaccine," Harben said. "The idea is that by expanding the number of domestic producers and the quantity produced in this country, this will reduce over the long term the risk of another unexpected vaccine shortage."

Flu vaccines traditionally have been grown in fertilized chicken eggs, a process that takes about 6 months. The idea of growing the vaccine in cells from insects, monkeys, or other animals is drawing increasing interest because it may be somewhat faster and the resulting vaccine may be slightly safer. Several companies are experimenting with the method, according to recent reports.

Harben said the flu-prevention funds can also be used "to ensure a year-round supply of appropriate eggs for domestic vaccine. The idea is that if a [flu] pandemic were to begin, vaccine production could also begin at any time. Right now eggs are only produced during a certain period. This is more of a short-term effort to expand annual flu vaccine production."

Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., among others, has argued that the government should lower the financial risks for flu-vaccine manufacturers by buying doses that manufacturers can't sell by the end of the season. Bayh cosponsored an unsuccessful bill this year that would have authorized that approach.

Meg Keck, a spokeswoman for Bayh, told CIDRAP News, "CDC could use some of that funding [the $99 million] to buy vaccine at the end of the season, as Sen. Bayh has suggested." Bayh has written to the CDC urging the agency to use some of the money that way, she added.

But Harben said, "Right now there are no plans to use these funds, which are intended to be used for pandemic preparations, to purchase annual flu vaccine for this season."

She declined to predict whether any of the money could be used to buy leftover vaccine in the future. "I believe it's something that will be looked at, but no decisions have been made at this time," she said. She noted that the new appropriation is for fiscal year 2005, which ends Sep 30, 2005, so the money must be obligated for a specific purpose, though not actually spent, by that time.

Keck said the original proposal for this year's flu-prevention funding was $75 million, but the sum was increased at the urging of Bayh and others. In addition, she said the legislation includes authority for HHS to use the money to buy flu vaccine for the general public, which has not been true of flu-prevention appropriations in the past.

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