Europeans snub vaccine and states cancel orders

COMMENT: Could the real reason for vaccine cancellations be challenges to the flu-fear-industrial complex, such as the accusations put forward by Council of Europe Health Committee chairman Wolfgang Wodarg that WHO officials and Big Pharma reps conspired to trigger pandemic fears (and official government reaction) when they were not justified?

JEANNE WHALEN And DAVID GAUTHIER-VILLARS
Wall Street Journal
January 13, 2010

Just months after rushing to order enough swine-flu vaccine to protect their citizens, European governments are canceling orders and trying to sell or give away extra doses as they sit on a glut of the vaccine.

The main reason: European health officials decided that only one shot per person was needed, instead of the two originally planned. Low demand is also to blame. Many Europeans believe the pandemic has turned out to be fairly mild, and don’t see a reason to get vaccinated. Some are also concerned that they will suffer side effects from the shots, despite assurances otherwise from global health officials.

“The population is not running to get the vaccination,” says Roland Jopp, a spokesman for Germany’s health ministry.

Declining interest in the shots could be bad news for vaccine makers, particularly if countries demand their money back for supplies already delivered.

Companies may be able to sell the shots elsewhere, however. Most vaccine makers, including GlaxoSmithKline PLC, Sanofi-Aventis SA, Novartis AG and Baxter International Inc., have been expecting a large sales bump from H1N1 vaccine.

In October, analysts estimated that Glaxo would ring up an extra £1 billion ($1.62 billion) of fourth-quarter sales thanks to the vaccine. Novartis has forecast H1N1 sales of $400 million to $700 million for that period.

But some countries are now canceling orders. Germany on Tuesday said it canceled 30% of the 50 million doses it had ordered from Glaxo, which it said would save the country €133.3 million ($194 million). Mr. Jopp of the German health ministry said the main reason for the cancellation is that only one shot is needed per person.

France, which had ordered 94 million doses from four companies, is seeking to cancel 50 million of those doses, according to its health ministry. The U.K., Switzerland, the Netherlands and Spain also say they are seeking to trim their orders, or to sell already delivered doses to other countries.

In the U.S., where vaccine supplies are now ample after an earlier shortage, a top health official last week said the country is focused on vaccinating as many people as possible, and has made no decision about canceling vaccine orders or selling supplies.

Mr. Jopp said Germany still aims to vaccinate one-third of its population, which would cover all groups who are at greater risk for suffering bad infections—including pregnant women, young children and people with asthma. So far, though, only about 10% of the population has stepped forward to be vaccinated, he said.

Some health officials say the public’s lack of interest reflects the thought that the outbreak is milder than many people expected.

Last week, the World Health Organization said that rates of “influenza-like illness” have declined substantially in Western Europe in recent weeks, though it added that there was still “intense virus circulation” in parts of Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe.

When France began vaccinating people in November, the government opened makeshift vaccination centers in basketball arenas and meeting halls.

People at first rushed to get vaccinated, even lining up in the cold. After a few weeks, however, the public’s concern ebbed, leaving most vaccination centers idle and the government facing criticism that it overreacted to the threat.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday defended the government’s planning. “I will always prefer to be too prudent when it comes to people’s health than not enough,” he said in a speech to doctors and nurses.

France initially focused on vaccinating high-risk groups, but has since made vaccine available to the entire population. Still, as of Jan. 10, only about 8% of France’s population of 65 million had been vaccinated, according to health officials.

Swiss authorities have run television and Internet ads to promote vaccination, helping convince about 15% to 20% of the population to get vaccinated— about the same number that would during the regular flu season most years, a spokesman for the Swiss health ministry said.

In an emailed reply to questions, a WHO spokeswoman declined to comment on countries’ attempts to cancel their vaccine orders.

She said: “It is premature to consider the pandemic as completed, and there is still immense value in the H1N1 immunization.”

Glaxo said it is “working closely with governments to respond to their changing needs.” Novartis said it “will evaluate government requests on a case-by-case basis within the framework of the contractual agreements, which are considered binding.”

A Baxter spokeswoman said its contracts “have always included provisions allowing the contract holder to adjust its vaccine supply requirements based on its evolving pandemic needs.”

All three companies declined to comment on how cancellations might affect sales.

A Sanofi spokesman said the company doesn’t yet anticipate any significant changes in revenue due to vaccine cancellations.

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