Finnegan's Take

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Sale of the century: EU governments are selling off swine flu vaccines

Having grossly overestimated the demand for vaccines against the once-dreaded H1N1 virus, health ministers across Western Europe are rushing to flog spare flu drugs in a mass medicines January sale.

France ordered 94 million doses of the new flu vaccine and vaccinated just 5 million citizens, leaving it with warehouses full of unused medicines which it hopes to sell on to developing countries.

It’s a similar story in Germany and Spain, both of whom want to cancel orders with drugs companies and return unused medicines. The UK, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Canada have also realised that they have over-ordered and are being forced to sell, donate or store millions of excess medicines.

Bad news from rich governments; bad news for rich vaccine manufacturers; good news for poorer countries who can now demand deep discounts on ‘second-hand’ medicines.

Part of the reason that a billion Euro worth of vaccines are sitting in storage in Europe is that it was originally thought that two doses would be needed to achieve immunisation. It emerged in the autumn – after the orders were placed – that one dose would do (funnily enough, Chinese drug-maker Sinovac had always believed a single-jab strategy would do the trick).

But even allowing for this double-ordering, it is clear that demand for the vaccine is far lower than expected because (a) the public was a little uneasy about such a new vaccine and (b) the flu simply wasn’t as lethal as feared.

At a meeting on healthcare innovation in Brussels last month, an MEP noted that France had spent €1.5 billion on swine flu medicines, compared to €770 million on cancer research. Should governments be spending twice as much on swine flu vaccines as on cancer research? I’d prefer to take my chances with a heavy flu and invest in cancer.

Somewhere along the way, fear triumphed over reason and health ministers raided the piggy bank and splurged on flu medicines.

Call it Fear Fever.

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