Federal health officials today downplayed reports suggesting that a swine flu vaccine may not be ready by fall and resisted the notion that the United States is vulnerable because of its dependance on overseas manufacturers who might be inclined to keep their supplies.
"We have contracts in place with five countries, and their manufacturing enterprises are in five locations," said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said during an afternoon teleconference. "We haven't gotten information that makes us question the supply that we've been promised."
The teleconference brought together experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services and addressed concerns that vaccine supplies, once available, may be too scarce to go around.
Much of this money is slated for swine flu vaccine development, approval and distribution. Manufacturers have indicated that current strains of the H1N1 vaccine are slow growing, and some experts have questioned whether that means vaccine supplies will be delayed. But Schuchat and other health officials said they have factored the pace of vaccine production into contingency plans and still expects vaccine to be available this fall.
Still, the U.S. makes only 20 percent of the flu vaccine it uses. Most of the vaccines -- about 70 percent -- are made in Europe, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press. And there's no quick and easy way to boost supplies.
"We know there's not going to be enough globally, and it will be many months before we can cover our own population," Dr. Julie Gerberding, former director of the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told "Good Morning America" today.
Already, the World Health Organization has said that at least 50 governments have placed orders for the swine flu vaccine. Experts warn that governments will be under tremendous pressure to protect their own citizens before allowing companies to ship doses of the vaccine out of the country.
"There's always a concern that when we have these international vaccine manufacturers that some of that vaccine, for example, might be embargoed or held back," said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.
"You can't just enhance production overnight," he said. "It takes time."
Whenever the vaccines are indeed ready, however, they may come not a moment too soon. Health officials warned that they did expect to see more flu activity than usual in the season ahead -- perhaps starting earlier than usual as kids go back to school.
"There may be challenges when people return to school," Schuchat said, later adding that the public must bear in mind that the potential public health threat from the pandemic virus is far from over.
"Complacency is a major concern," she said. "I think we are taking this virus very seriously... I think it is very important for the public to be thinking ahead."