Federal health officials today announced the first phase of a plan to get flu vaccine to the neediest people in the effort to cope with a shortage that could leave millions without protection from the flu.
"We don't know yet how serious the flu epidemic is going to be this year," Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a news conference with the president of the French drug company Aventis Pasteur, one of two providers of U.S. flu vaccine.
The other provider, Chiron Corp. of Emeryville, Calif., last week announced that British health officials had closed its plant in Liverpool, because of manufacturing problems and possible contamination. The plant had expected to produce 46 million doses for the U.S. market.
The same day, U.S. officials issued a revised recommendation of who should be vaccinated against the disease that kills 35,000 or more people in this country each year.
Chiron also said today that it received a subpoena from the U.S. Attorney's office in New York, requesting that it provide documents to a federal grand jury about the vaccine and the decision to close the plant. The company said in a regulatory filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it intends to cooperate.
Under the plan announced with the CDC today, Aventis will direct shipments of its remaining 22.4 million doses to those who care for people at highest risk of death or serious illness from flu.
About 14.2 million doses of the vaccine will be shipped, starting immediately and taking six to eight weeks, to hospitals, nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
"This is a troubling, frustrating situation for all of us, and we need for all Americans to pull together in the weeks to come to meet this challenge head on," Gerberding said.
Some stock of vaccine already has been shipped, and Gerberding noted that some people have waiting in long lines for vaccine and that there have been price gouging and other problems.
Public health officials have urged pharmacies and other retail outlets that provide flu shots to turn away people who are not at the highest risk. The elderly, young children, health care workers, pregnant women and people with chronic medical conditions are being given priority.
The bulk of the flu season generally occurs from December to March.
Associated Press contributed to this report.