The flow of swine flu vaccines to the U.S. market is picking up, health and corporate officials said, and now the challenge will be to get the drugs to people.
Dr. Anne Schuchat of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 41.1 million doses of H1N1 vaccines are either available or have been delivered but that state and local health officials still face logistical problems.
"I can't tell you how many times in our outreach to our counterparts that we got messages back saying 'It's Friday, we are furloughed' or 'We are out today'," Schuchat told a Senate health subcommittee hearing.
Many U.S. states have furloughed workers — making them take a day off without pay —because of budgets hit by the recession.
"I think the key barrier to our immunization effort is really the fragility of the public health infrastructure," Schuchat said. "There have been about 15,000 jobs lost in that sector over the past two years."
Public health officials have been warning about the problem for years but Schuchat said nothing has really forced the issue — until this pandemic.
"You wait until the bridge collapses before someone cares about it," Schuchat said in an interview after the hearing.
Schuchat also defended a controversial decision by New York City authorities to give some vaccines to bankers such as those at Goldman Sachs.
"Many adults are vaccinated with seasonal flu (vaccine) in the workplace," Schuchat said, noting that young adults with asthma or diabetes, pregnant women or parents with infants too young to be vaccinated are in the priority groups and could also be employed at banks.
"We want it to be convenient, accessible and available."
Google worked with the U.S. government to provide a flu shot locator.
"At the moment we have data for locations of flu vaccine directly from 20 states and counting," the Internet search company said in a statement.
Schuchat said the government had learned some lessons about how to manage expectations. The Health and Human Services Department has been criticized for predicting that as many as 120 million doses of vaccine would have been available by now.
"We tried to let people know that bumps could happen, that managing influenza vaccine is always unpredictable," Schuchat said. But the message "wasn't as well absorbed as we would have liked."
Separately, Sanofi-Aventis chief executive Christopher Viehbacher told reporters that output was rising at two U.S. flu vaccine facilities.
He predicted Sanofi will have shipped 75 million doses to the U.S. market by late December.
"We're pretty happy with production. It takes a while to get the thing up and running," Viehbacher said.
Sanofi's facilities in Swiftwater, Pennsylvania, are the only sites producing the H1N1 vaccine in the United States and are now using 300,000 eggs a day, Viehbacher said.
The United States also has contracts with four other vaccine makers for influenza immunizations — AstraZeneca unit MedImmune, Novartis,, CSL and GlaxoSmithKline, whose H1N1 vaccine has yet to be licensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
A U.S. senator proposed legislation to require employers to give workers seven paid days off to cope with flu. Senator Chris Dodd said the measure would help slow the spread of H1N1 and increase productivity.