Saturday, January 22, 2005

Flu vaccine shortage suddenly a surplus

Posted by Craig Westover | 6:50 AM |  

The Wasington Post today reports that the nation’s flu vaccine shortage has turned into a surplus. An excess of 5 million doses are available in the government stockpile. The Minnesota Department of Health has plenty of flu vaccine available as well.

According to the Post, with demand dwindling, it appears likely that instead of running out of shots this year, the government will end up discarding unused vaccine, they said. (Minnesota is shipping shots to other states.) A CDC survey last week found that only 10 states said they may need more vaccine, making it unlikely the remaining federal reserves of nearly 5 million doses will be sold.

What happened?

When the shortage first hit, I wrote a column under he title “Vaccine shortage a symptom of ailing system” in which I quoted Dr. Henry Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution.

“These problems are largely the result of wrongheaded public policy,” he said. "Actions by the people who determine much of the Nation’s public health agenda have discouraged research and development; squandered scarce resources; and deprived citizens of important consumer products, while placing them at risk.”
That wrongheaded policy is again to blame. Flu vaccine mismanagement is a typical but potentially deadly example of government over-stepping its responsibility to protect its citizens and micromanaging economic activity on both the supply and demand side of the equation. From my original column on the causes of the (supply side) shortage -- a lack of reliable companies producing flu vaccine --

Vaccines should be attractive products for manufactures. They are used every year, recommended for virtually everyone, and extremely safe. But while vaccines have a high social value, they provide a low return on investment for pharmaceutical companies, and consequently receive little R&D funding. . . .

Why the low profit on vaccines? Consider a policy like the 1993 Vaccines for Children (VFC) program. (VFC is similar to the prescription drug program in Canada.)

Under the VFC program, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) purchases nearly 70 percent of all childhood vaccines at deeply discounted government-set prices. It then distributes the vaccines to states according to a federal formula. The result is some states wind up with a surplus of vaccines (with a limited shelf life) while other areas experience a shortage. Price control plus limited shelf-life discourages vaccine makers from producing more doses than the government orders.

It also drives companies out of the vaccine production business.

On the demand side of the equation, the government first pushes universal vaccination as a necessity, then backs off saying only “high risk” categories need worry about flu shots, then urges non-high risk categories to take advantage of the sudden surplus. From the Post --
"The problem with a set of stuttering, changing recommendations year by year is confusion," said Greg Poland of the Mayo Clinic. "I worry that it sends the wrong message to the public about the seriousness of influenza and the imperatives for why they should get immunized. One year we say 'You're in the high-risk group,' and then next year we say 'You're not.' The public is confused. . . . "

A surplus would make it even more difficult to persuade manufacturers to produce more vaccine in future years, a goal public health officials have long pursued, as well as undermine years of efforts to encourage more Americans to get routinely vaccinated, experts said. . . .

In addition, many doctors and clinics are hesitant to order more so late in the season for fear they will be left holding the bill for unsold vaccine.
And so at this point -- like so many government examples of mismanagement -- the issue suddenly focuses on “the system” rather than on the people the system is ostensibly set up to help. Again from the Post --
"Every season we see this, but this year it's particularly concerning because of all the energy people put into targeting vaccine and all the people who stepped aside.” [noted a CDC spokesperson] We are doing everything we can to get these doses used, because we really want to minimize the amount left over."
And so we’ve gone from a “crisis” of supply to a “crisis” of demand, to reassurance that government is doing all it can not to "waste" resources on unused vaccines. Is there any further proof needed that when government oversteps its responsibility more harm that good arises?

NOTE: Mismanagement of flu vaccine supply and demand is but a sneeze when looking at the ailing U.S. vaccination system. Evidence is growing that consistent “buck passing” on the issue of mercury-based vaccine preservative coupled with government extension of mandatory childhood vaccinations has contributed to a significant, if not “epidemic,” increase in autistic-like development symptoms in American children. More posts and columns to follow . . . .