RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Okay, back now to that more urgent health care issue. Supplies of the vaccine against the swine flu are way below projections.
NPR's Richard Knox reports on why there's a shortage of the vaccine and how that affects government plans to protect most Americans against the new H1N1 flu.
RICHARD KNOX: To get an idea of the shortage, let's look at Los Angeles. It wasn't until this weekend that they could hold swine flu vaccine clinics. L.A. County health commissioner Jonathan Fielding opened the first two himself.
Mr. JONATHAN FIELDING (Health Commissioner, L.A. County): I am standing outside one of our vaccine clinics, which is being held in Encino, a part of Los Angeles.
KNOX: He says demand was very high. Most of the people had to wait between one and three hours, and Fielding didn't see many people dropping out of the lines leading into the clinics.
Mr. FIELDING: We were planning to have more before this, in fact, but we had to cancel them because of the lack of vaccine.
KNOX: All over the country in cities and rural counties, there's a big gap between supply and demand.
Mr. FIELDING: The vaccine situation is quite frustrating. You know, the numbers that we were asked to anticipate and plan with have turned out to be gross overestimates of what had been supplied to us. And I don't understand what the issue is with the manufacturers, that from week to the next, they can't give us more accurate estimates.
KNOX: Forty million doses of vaccine were promised by the end of October, but as last Friday, only 16 million had been shipped.
I asked Dr. Anne Schuchat what went wrong. She is chief of the immunization branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She says vaccine manufacturers use chicken eggs to grow the virus for the vaccine, and until recently they didn't have the chemical they needed to run tests on the virus they were growing.
Dr. ANNE SCHUCHAT (Chief, Immunization Branch, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): And then when they were run, the manufacturers basically found out that the product that they had was actually less than they thought they had.
KNOX: On top of that, there were glitches in new machines they installed -machines that put vaccine in vials and put the vials in packages. Anne Schuchat says CDC officials didn't realize the effect of these problems until the middle of this month. Manufacturers say they're fixing the problems now, but the flu virus is roaring ahead.
Vaccine production won't be able to catch up any time soon. Schuchat says that raises an obvious question.
Dr. SCHUCHAT: People wonder whether, when vaccine is available for you or those in your family, will it be too late for that vaccine to give you any benefit.
Professor MARC LIPSITCH (Harvard University): It's hard to make an argument that the vaccine is going to protect very many people against this wave at the rate that it's coming out.
KNOX: That's Marc Lipsitch of Harvard. He does a lot of work for the CDC trying to predict the course of swine flu.
Prof. LIPSITCH: Most of this wave will be over by the time most Americans have access to the vaccine.
KNOX: Actually, Anne Schuchat disagrees. She says even when this wave of swine flu peaks, there'll still be time for many people get vaccinated.
Dr. SCHUCHAT: A key point is that even when peak occurs in any one area, half the people that are going to become infected haven't yet become infected.
KNOX: L.A.'s Health Commissioner Jonathan Fielding thinks Schuchat is the one who's right.
Mr. FIELDING: I don't think it's too little too late, I think it's too little. And, obviously for people who get sick or who get very seriously ill, it's too late. But for many others, I think it's going to arrive in time to help prevent disease.
KNOX: One more opinion; as of last week, the head of the CDC says he's had it for now with making predictions about flu vaccine.
Richard Knox, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.