Flu Slowing in Most Parts of U.S; Vaccine Makers Get $1 Billion

by Lynn Shapiro, Writer | May 27, 2009
The swine flu virus
is the target of a significant
vaccine production investment
The swine flu outbreak appears to be ebbing in most parts of the U.S., except for New York, New Jersey and New England.

Meanwhile, CDC said the government has awarded several companies a total of $1 billion to make an H1N1 vaccine, although the agency has not yet decided whether to forge ahead with a vaccination program.

Sanofi-Pasteur spokeswoman Donna K. Cary told DOTmed News that Sanofi received a seed vaccine on Wednesday from CDC and will be "proceeding directly into development of the working seed," which will take about two weeks, and then vaccine production will follow, as soon as the government gives the go-ahead.

Sanofi won a $190 million contract from the government; Novartis a $289 million contract; and GlaxoSmithKline was awarded $181 million to produce H1N1 vaccine ingredients. Another $150 million will go to these manufacturers (and perhaps others) to finance clinical trials for the pilot vaccine.

The money, which had already been earmarked for pandemic flu and preparedness before the swine flu outbreak hit, will also be used to stockpile vaccine ingredients. The stockpile would be used if health officials decide to vaccinate U.S. residents, according to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

"The actions we are taking today will help us be prepared if a vaccine is needed," HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a briefing on Tuesday.

New Cases in New Jersey and Worldwide

Meanwhile, the flu, which appears to have run its course in most parts of the country, is still affecting people in New York, New Jersey and New England, officials say.

For example, eight out of the 10 children tested for swine flu at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in Asbury Park, N.J., have contracted the virus, but so far the cases have been mild.

Worldwide, WHO says that at least 46 countries have confirmed more than 12,950 H1N1 flu cases. In North America, the Mexican death toll now numbers 83 cases, while the U.S. has reported 12 deaths and Canada, two.

Countries in the Arab Gulf reported their first casualties during the last week. Bahrain said that a 20-year-old student had contracted a mild case of H1N1 flu. Kuwait reported that 18 U.S. soldiers who visited there were infected with the virus but had recovered and left the country. Puerto Rico and the Czech Republic both reported cases of the flu.

WHO Alert at Level 5

Meanwhile, health officials are watching to see what happens as flu season begins in the Southern Hemisphere.

Officials are concerned that the so-far mild strain of swine flu could turn lethal, resembling the virus that caused the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic. Currently, the virus doesn't exhibit the same biological features as the early 20th century bug, but it could mutate, officials say.

WHO's pandemic alert status is currently at level 5, or one notch below the pandemic alert level. Keiji Fukuda, the WHO's flu czar, says the agency would take the flu's virulence into account when deciding whether to ratchet the pandemic alert signal up to its highest notch.

"What we will be looking for is events which signify a really substantial increase in risk of harm to people," he said.

Sources: Sanofi, CDC, HHS, WHO and news reports