Swine flu- move to recover cost of vaccine

The government is attempting to claw back tens of millions of pounds from flu vaccine manufacturers as it seeks to scale down an immunisation plan to protect the country from a severe pandemic.

Officials have cancelled further orders from Baxter, and are finalising a deal to limit purchases from GlaxoSmithKline, in an effort to recoup part of a £500m deal with the two companies for sufficient vaccine to cover the entire population.

Ministers have decided to abandon the aim of a universal flu vaccination programme, although they are pursuing the drive to vaccinate children under five as well as pregnant women, people with underlying health problems and health and social care workers.

The mild nature of the swine flu virus, the need for only a single rather than a double dose of vaccine and public suspicion and indifference to vaccination have led to lower take-up than anticipated in the UK and other countries.

The government’s decision – in the context of severe pressure on public spending – comes at a time of similar moves by other countries including France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain.

Sir David Salisbury, director of immunisation at the Department of Health, said a break clause had now been activated in the contract agreed with Baxter of the US, while discussions were under way with GSK, from which most of the vaccine had been purchased.

Similar formal break clauses were not included in many countries’ contracts with vaccine suppliers, because they were drawn up at a time when governments and manufacturers expected demand would substantially outstrip supply.

However, GSK, like other large suppliers, including Sanofi-Aventis of France, is coming under political pressure to accept a scaling back of previously agreed volumes of orders.

GSK stands to lose tens of millions of pounds alone from the UK renegotiations and smaller amounts from other large purchasers such as France.

The drugmaker had previously estimated total sales of its pandemic flu vaccine across more than 70 countries at £2bn over 2009 and 2010.

It may be able to recover some losses from sales to other countries including in Latin America. Sanofi-Aventis, the world’s largest supplier of flu vaccine, stands to lose significant sales, with smaller losses from Novartis, while other suppliers such as Baxter, CSL and MedImmune – part of AstraZeneca – had lower initial sales and much lower exposure.

The UK and other countries are in talks about making donations of surplus vaccine stocks available to poorer countries and selling excess stocks to richer ones – although there are concerns about the issue of liability in such cases.

Sir David said the UK would keep some surplus stocks, both to prepare for any possible third wave of the pandemic and for a future different infection.

The vaccine contains an antigen to protect the body against the current H1N1 virus which would not be useful against future mutations.

But it has an adjuvant stored separately until just before vaccination, which enhances the body’s immune response and could be stored over longer periods to help fight a future pandemic.

The latest figures from England show that fewer than 3.8m people have been vaccinated against pandemic flu since last autumn, although 12.5m doses of vaccine have been sent out for health services ready to be used.

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