EU ponders swine flu vaccine glut

08.02.10 @ 17:43

  1. By Andrew Willis

The outbreak of swine flu in North America last April and subsequent spread around the globe lead the World Health Organisation to rapidly raise its pandemic alert warnings in the following weeks, reaching a maximum Phase Six on 11 June 2009.

  • Swine flu is thought to have originated in Mexico (Photo: Eneas De Troya)

But now, less than a year later, several EU countries find themselves among a list of states with an excessive stockpile of a hastily-made vaccine, leading to accusations of misspent taxpayer money and collusion between the WTO and private pharmaceutical companies.

The French administration, for example, ordered enough vaccine to inoculate its entire population of 60 million, but has so far used only 5 million doses. It now hopes to cancel 50 million doses and sell millions more.

The Netherlands is looking to sell 19 million doses to other countries, while Germany is in talks with drug manufacturers to halve its order of 50 million doses. Switzerland, Spain and Britain are also considering plans to sell excess supplies.

A review process analysing Europe's effectiveness in tackling the health crisis last year, and involving the European Commission and member states, will look into the causes of the vaccine glut, amongst other issues. Initiated towards the end of December, the results are set to be submitted under the Belgian EU presidency in the second half of 2010.

With health issues still largely a national competence, commission officials say their role in the early days of the outbreak was to facilitate information exchange between European capitals, with efforts now concentrating on the need to redistribute the surplus vaccines.

The EU executive body will not comment on allegations of collusion, pointing instead to the initial mistaken belief that individuals would need two vaccine doses to acquire immunity as the main reason for the vaccine glut in certain states.

Council of Europe

The Strasbourg-based Council of Europe, a non-EU institution dealing primarily with human rights issues and made up of national MPs, held a public hearing on the subject however on 26 January, with the question up for debate: "Are decisions on pandemics taken on the best scientific evidence only?"

Dr Wolfgang Wodarg, a specialist in epidemiology and former member of the Council's assembly until he lost his seat in the September German elections, accuses the WTO of providing governments with poor information. He notes that the strain's transmissibility was used to define pandemic status, with no consideration given to the severity of the strain.

The former German politician also highlighted during the public hearing that the WTO's definition of a pandemic was changed as recently as last May, with the decision to purchase vaccines in several capitals triggered by the WTO issuing its pandemic warning.

"It was only this change of definition that made it possible to transform a run-of-the-mill flu into a worldwide pandemic – and made it possible for the pharmaceutical industry to transform this opportunity into cash, under contracts which were mainly secret," he told attendees.

Dr Keiji Fukuda, special advisor on pandemic influenza to the WHO's director-general, defended the organisation's action during the last year's outbreak.

"The flu pandemic policies and responses were not improperly influenced by the pharmaceutical industry. Co-operation with a range of partners, including the private sector, is necessary, but numerous safeguards are in place to avoid conflict of interest," he said.

He added that labeling the pandemic as a "fake" would be to ignore recent history and science and to trivialise the deaths of over 14,000 people that have taken place so far as a result of the virus.

The subject has now been taken up by Council Assembly member and UK Labour MP Paul Flynn, with a report expected in June. The European Commission says it will react to the report once published.

EUobserver's special focus section delves into the challenges confronting healthcare, this most cherished element of the European welfare state. See more: Health Focus