The flu vaccine shortage has set off a scramble to find ways to prevent future repeats of this year's calamity, which has restricted shots to those most at risk.
HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, among others, says the government should buy unused flu vaccine doses to guarantee manufacturers produce adequate supplies.
"The guarantee is nice. We'd rather see our vaccine being used," said David Williams, Aventis Pasteur president. The company wants to extend flu vaccinations beyond November. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends that people get flu shots in October or November.
Aventis can produce 2 million to 3 million doses of flu vaccine weekly. But it sells few after November.
Thompson said HHS has requested $100 million in the past two budgets to shift flu vaccine production to newer technology. Congress gave the agency $50 million in 2004, but Thompson is lobbying for the full $100 million in the 2005 fiscal year.
The proposal, contained in legislation proposed last year by Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) has languished in committee since last winter. This year's flu vaccine shortage, however, has doubled the bill's co-sponsors.
Williams also wants to vaccinate all Americans to increase flu vaccine demand. Universal vaccination is an idea championed by a University of Maryland School of Medicine researcher.
"That will, then, force the hand of third-party payers to pay for the vaccine," said James King, a pediatrics professor who tests vaccines. "Unless we make it somewhat cost-effective for the companies to make vaccine, it would be insane for them to make it."
Twenty percent to 50% of children get the flu each year, King said, as do 10% to 20% of adults.
Four decades of research led to the nasal spray vaccine FluMist. Within 10 years, new delivery methods will include flu vaccine delivered by skin patch. Even more options could come if millions more dollars were devoted to research and clinical trials, said Robert Belshe, director of the center for vaccine development at St. Louis University.
Some 36,000 Americans die from flu annually, mortality rates that rise to 51,000 if such flu complications as heart attack and stroke are included, Belshe said.