White House Modifies Plan to Give Away Part of U.S. H1N1 Vaccine Supply to Foreign Countries; Says Sebelius Committed 'Slight Miscommunication'

By Penny Starr | October 27, 2009 | 5:15pm EDT

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told CNSNews.com that the U.S. would donate H1N1 vaccine abroad after 40 million vaccine doses were procured, but the White House said the timing of international donations will depend on a number of factors. (CNSNews.com/Penny Starr)

(CNSNews.com) – A White House official told CNSNews.com on Tuesday that the Obama administration's commitment to donate 10 percent of the U.S. supply of H1N1 vaccine to other countries will not necessarily begin after 40 million doses are procured, as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told CNSNews.com and the Senate Homeland Security Committee last week.

On Saturday, three days after Sebelius made her remarks about the U.S. donating some of its vaccine to foreign countries, President Obama declared the H1N1 epidemic a national emergency.
Calling Sebelius’ remarks “a slight miscommunication,” the White House official told CNSNews.com that the 40-million dose figure that Sebelius cited as the trigger-point at which U.S. donations of vaccine to foreign countries would begin refers to the estimate of needed vaccines for the most at-risk population in the United States.  

“It’s the minimal requirement for considering when the timing will be right,” to begin international donations, the official said, adding that the most important consideration is the vaccine supply in the United States.

“The first priority is to ensure domestic requirements are met,” the official said.

The official also told CNSNews.com that the Obama administration is in “constant dialogue” with the World Health Organization (WHO), which will distribute the vaccine that the United States and 10 other nations donate.

WHO also has to ensure that countries that receive vaccines are in the position to use them is another factor in determining when international donations are made, the official said.

“Nobody wants to see vaccines being available and not being utilized,” she said.
At a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Committee last Wednesday, Sebelius said, “The president clearly has made it clear that his priority is safety and security of the American people, and immediately he also adds that we're a global partner. So we have joined now with 11 nations in terms of 10 percent of the vaccine will be made available to developing countries."

After the hearing, CNSNews.com asked Sebelius whether Americans should be prioritized over foreigners with the stockpile of H1N1 vaccine that the HHS has ordered using taxpayer funds. Sebelius said: “Well, I think that we are trying to do both things simultaneously--participating is part of our partnership with 11 other countries in terms of donating to developing countries.”

“There’s an agreement (on a) 10 percent donation that 11 nations have made, at the same time trying to get the vaccine out to Americans," said Sebelius. "What we said is once we have 40 million doses, the donation can start.”

Referring to the production delay for the vaccine, Sebelius told CNSNews.com: “We had hoped that that would be a little earlier, but we are working with these 11 nations through the World Health Organization (WHO) to help get the vaccines to countries particularly who can't purchase them. I mean, that’s really the issue is the countries who don’t have the wherewithal to purchase vaccines. We need to make available some of the vaccine that is available to the developed nations.”

When CNSNews.com tried to clarify whether the donation would happen once the delay in production was over and all of the U.S. demand had been met, Sebelius told CNSNews.com that that was not the case. 

“Well, no," she said. "Forty million doses was the initial benchmark and so once that is in this country, then 10 percent of the (doses are donated), and we’ll make up the rest. That’s what the other nations are doing too--England, New Zealand, and Australia and Germany and Spain are all participating in this kind of global effort.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, as of Oct. 21 less than 12 million doses of the H1N1 vaccine had been shipped to the 150,000 locations offering the injection and nasal spray immunization around the United States.

Hospitals and health clinics around the country are reporting long lines and running out of the vaccine before demand can be met.

When asked why the supply of vaccines has been so slow in coming, the White House official told CNSNews.com on Tuesday that she believes the needs of Americans will be met.

“We’ve always known there are many uncertainties surrounding the vaccine process,” the official said, adding that vaccines are an “important tool in terms of saving lives.

“Everybody is doing all that they can to make sure the vaccine is available to the American public as soon as possible,” she said.

On Saturday, President Barack Obama declared the H1N1 influenza pandemic a “national emergency.”

The CDC’s “situation update” on its Web site states that the cases of H1N1 continue to grow.

“During the week of October 11-17, 2009, influenza activity continued to increase in the United States as reported in FluView,” the update stated. 

“Flu activity is now widespread in 46 states. Nationwide, visits to doctors for influenza-like-illness are increasing steeply and are now higher than what is seen at the peak of many regular flu seasons. In addition, flu-related hospitalizations and deaths continue to go up nation-wide and are above what is expected for this time of year,” it added.

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