Flu vaccine shortage spurs freelance shots, profiteering

Dec 9, 2004 (CIDRAP News) – Freelance vaccinations and offers of bootleg vaccine are two unusual side effects of the US influenza vaccine shortage.

More than 35 students and staff paid $20 each to receive injections described as flu shots at Augsburg College in Minneapolis from Nov 30 through Dec 2. When college officials questioned the woman giving the shots, she fled, according to published reports in the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Police later arrested Michelle Torgerson, 33, of Albertville, Minn., who spent a weekend in jail before holding a press conference with her attorney earlier this week.

Attorney Robert Hajek said Torgerson, a licensed practical nurse, was selling leftover vaccine that her employer had told her to throw away, the Star Tribune reported. She sold the vaccine on campus to raise money for the American Heart Association, Hajek added.

No criminal charges have been filed against Torgerson, both newspapers said yesterday.

The vaccine lot numbers and expiration dates from recovered vials were legitimate, said Kris Ehresmann, RN, MPH, manager of immunization, tuberculosis, and international health for the Minnesota Department of Health.

However, the vials were sent to a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) laboratory in Cincinnati for authentication of the contents, Ehresmann told CIDRAP News.

Anticipating such a situation, authorities had chosen that lab earlier this season to authenticate flu vaccine in questionable cases, she added. Results were expected today.

Ehresmann called the Augsburg College incident "a violation of the public trust."

In an unrelated case, federal authorities announced Dec 6 they had arrested a New Jersey resident on a charge of illegally importing 810 doses of unapproved flu vaccine into the United States, according to a joint news release by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the FDA criminal investigations office, and Atlantic County (N.J.) authorities.

Mahmoud Abuarqoub, 37, of Somers Point, N.J., was arrested on returning to the US from abroad Dec 4. He is a naturalized US citizen born in Jordan. He was charged Dec 6 in US District Court in Camden, N.J., with importing the Aventis Vaxigrip flu vaccine from Saudi Arabia on Nov 17.

Abuarqoub is accused of approaching a medical professional at Somers Point Memorial Hospital earlier in November with an offer to sell up to 20,000 units of European flu vaccine at $65 per unit. The hospital alerted authorities and continued to negotiate with Abuarqoub, who agreed to sell 1,600 doses for $55 apiece, according to the news release.

Authorities intercepted the flu vaccine at JFK Airport in New York City on Nov 17, the release said. Abuarqoub faces up to 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine if convicted.

Authorities said anyone aware of attempts to import and distribute unapproved vaccines should call ICE at 1-866-DHS-2ICE (1-866-347-2423) or the FDA at 301-827-6242.

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