Swine flu: Ministers 'preparing to offload millions of unwanted vaccines'
Ministers are preparing to offload millions of unwanted swine flu vaccines, it has emerged, as officials predicted that there will be no third wave of the pandemic this winter.
By Kate Devlin, Medical Correspondent
Millions of pounds could be wasted if the Government is unable to get out of orders for the vaccine it has placed with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the pharmaceutical giant.
Officials confirmed that they are considering a number of options, including attempting to sell or give away millions of the vaccines.
They also considering whether to stand down the National Pandemic Flu Service, the network of call centres which diagnose swine flu and hand out antiviral medications.
Fewer than 5,000 people in Britain are thought to have contracted swine flu in the last week, and the numbers in intensive care are falling, although there has been a rise in those aged over 65.
In May, even before a pandemic had been declared, ministers had signed contracts thought to be worth around £100 million to deliver 90 million vaccines to Britain.
Britain has now received almost 29 million doses of the H1N1 vaccine, but only just over 3.7 million have been given out and in total the Government has announced plans to inoculate only 14 million people.
The Government is considering exercising a break clause in its contract with Baxter, the pharmaceutical company, which supplies one of two vaccines used in the NHS.
There is no such clause in the GSK contract but ministers are currently in discussions with the company about future supplies.
But Prof David Salisbury, the Department of Health's director of immunisation, admitted that that still left the problem of vaccines which had already been delivered.
“There are a number of options open to us," he said. “These include selling vaccines or giving them away.”
Officials are also considering keeping one part of the vaccine, to form the basis of a future pandemic virus jab.
But Prof Salisbury insisted that the Government would keep a stock of the H1N1 vaccines in case the virus returned.
"If there were a UK resurgence during 2010 we would look very foolish if we had disposed of a valuable stockpile," he said.
He refused to give further details of discussions with manufacturers or of how much money might have been wasted, insisting that that was a matter of “commercial confidentiality”.
Prof Sir Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer, who at one point predicted that up to 64,000 people could die from swine flu this winter, insisted that when the contracts were signed much of the news surrounding the pandemic suggested it was extremely dangerous.
“The information coming out at the time that the contracts had to be signed was from Mexico and was very alarming,” he said.
He added that predictions now suggested there would be no third wave of the swine flu virus this winter.
He said: “At the moment the modellers in this country … don’t think there will be a third wave following Christmas.”
A number of other countries including France have already announced plans to sell off their surplus vaccines.
Angus Nicoll, a flu specialist at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), said: "All of the vaccination programmes were built on two shots and the good news is that ... we only need one shot to get us protected. So, there is a natural excess there.
"I would not say any country over-ordered because they were ordering on a basis of being cautious to a pandemic that could have been considerably worse."
Newly revised figures show that 360 people across Britain have died after contracting swine flu since April.
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