Friday, December 12, 2003

Call it the Bush flu.

With flu outbreaks in every state and widespread in 24 states, and with the two vaccine manufacturers having already shipped all 83 million doses, the issue is becoming political.

Sen. John Edwards, North Carolina Democrat and one of nine candidates seeking his party’s presidential nomination, said the government should have done more to ensure a larger supply of vaccine.

He has asked for companies to explain the shortage and for the General Accounting Office to investigate the Bush administration’s response, particularly that of Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s frustrating to hear a Bush health adviser make excuses for drug companies by giving inflated numbers on how much stockholders might lose on vaccine production,” Mr. Edwards said. “I wish we could think more about solutions and worry less about profits.”

Republicans chuckled at the charges.

“He may sue me for saying this, but it’s going to take eight Democrats getting the flu for Edwards to get the nomination,” said Jonathan Grella, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican.

One Republican source said it was “incredibly ironic” that Mr. Edwards would complain about vaccine manufacturers.

“There would be more companies available to manufacture vaccines if people like John Edwards and his trial lawyer friends weren’t putting them out of business with frivolous lawsuits,” the source said.

As hysteria over the flu has grown, Dr. Gerberding yesterday called for perspective, saying on NBC’s “Today” show that “for almost everyone, flu is not such a serious disease.”

Most flu vaccines are purchased by private clinics, hospitals and insurers or by state and local health authorities.

Bill Pierce, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said the government doesn’t play a role in determining how many doses are produced, though it does recommend who should be vaccinated and the Food and Drug Administration works with manufacturers to determine which strains of the flu should be targeted by the vaccine.

“The determination of supply is a market issue,” he said. “The companies and manufacturers determine how much supply to produce.”

Mr. Edwards wasn’t the only Democrat to criticize the administration. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said the federal government was “woefully unprepared” for the outbreaks.

He blamed the administration for not having a system in place to deal with this year’s flu outbreak.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican and a doctor, said the administration’s response has been proper. He, too, blamed lawsuits against manufacturers, as well as market conditions and the nature of the flu virus itself, for the shortages this year.

But he also agreed with calls for a long-term plan to counter these shortages.

“The current situation demands that the nation take more aggressive steps to improve our vaccine supply and guard against vaccine shortages in the future,” he said.

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