July 17, 2009 -- 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."
The federal government's actions appear to underscore the weight of the issue. On Thursday, President Obama designated $1.825 billion in an emergency effort to fight the spread of the H1N1 strain of influenza known as swine flu. The money comes from the $7.65 billion in funds that Congress has already appropriated to HHS to deal with the swine flu pandemic.
The money the president set aside is intended to be used to educate, approve and buy vaccines to fight the swine flu.
The CDC plans to convene an emergency meeting at the end of the month to discuss recommendations about which groups should receive the vaccine. Pregnant women are expected to be one group that takes priority.
Swine Flu Surging Overseas
Meanwhile, countries in the Southern Hhemisphere, where it is winter, are already seeing a sharp increase in their death tolls from the pandemic flu strain. So far, 137 have died in Argentina, 33 in Chile and 15 in Uruguay. More than 10,000 confirmed cases have been reported in Australia, and health officials there warn that the country could face up to 6,000 deaths this year.
The spike in fatalities, some say, may be a grim preview of what lies ahead for public health efforts in the Northern Hemisphere nations later this year, Gerberding said.
Cases in European countries are also on the rise. Britain has estimated 55,000 new cases in the last week alone, including that of Cherie Blair, the wife of former Prime Minister Tony Blair. More than two dozen people have died from the virus in the United Kingdom, including a 6-year-old girl.
The virus has not taken the summer off in the United States either. More than 50 summer camps in 20 states have sent kids home early or canceled sessions after suspected outbreaks.
But so far, at least, public health officials are heartened that the virus itself does not appear to have mutated into a more dangerous form.
"Fortunately, there are no signs that the virus itself is becoming more potent," Gerberding said.
She added that Americans can go a long way toward protecting themselves by keeping their hands washed, covering up sneezes and coughs and staying home when sick.
ABC News' Joanna Schaffhausen contributed to this report.