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Happy Trails, Swine Flu Vaccine

Here's one shot of swine flu vaccine that didn't go to waste. (AP)

After a crash project to develop swine flu vaccine last year, some 40 million unused doses of the stuff made to protect Americans have officially expired.

The expired vaccines -- roughly a quarter of the amount produced for the U.S. -- are about to get incinerated, the Associated Press' Mike Stobbe reports. That's the equivalent of $260 million going up in smoke, according to some number crunching by the AP.

Americans raced to receive the vaccine last October. But by January, when it became apparent the swine flu wasn't as deadly as initially feared, the public started losing interest. So, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) asked to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius what was to become of the millions of leftover and expiring doses?

Her response set June 30 as the end of the road for the 40 million doses. "We do not know with certainty the mix of expired and unexpired vaccines currently held by states," she wrote. "There are, however, about 14.3 million doses of vaccine usable beyond June 30, 2010, that remain at the CDC distribution center or are being stored by the manufacturer.”

Leftover flu vaccines is an annual occurrence. Every spring, manufacturers and purchasers engage in a kind of a guessing game, estimating just how many people will turn out for their annual seasonal flu shots in the fall. Some years they’re way off, other years, it’s spot on. Back in May CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said that close to all of the 114 million doses of seasonal flu vaccine produced this year were administered.

When there are leftovers, there are simple procedures for disposal –  burn them up or bury in a landfill, according to the state requirements.

What's different in the case of the swine flu vaccine is the sheer volume of vaccine slated for disposal. "Government flu experts couldn’t recall throwing away anything close to 40 million doses before," the AP found. And there's more. In total, roughly 30 million doses of viable swine flu vaccine remain unused, the AP reports.

"Our decisions regarding vaccine production were in line with the existing threat at the time such decisions were made," HHS spokesman Bill Hall told Shots by e-mail. "Although there were many doses of vaccine that went unused, it was much more appropriate to have been prepared for the worst case scenario than to have had too few doses. As we have said repeatedly, the risk of influenza disease is far greater than the risk of vaccination either for seasonal or pandemic influenza."

But millions of doses into the air? What kind of threat could that be? The Environmental Protection Agency says no worries: "If the H1N1 vaccine is managed in accordance with applicable state rules and regulations, EPA does not foresee any environmental risks. The volume of the vaccine to be destroyed does not present any environmental issues," the agency told Shots last month by e-mail.

That won’t be the end of the story. Sebelius tells Grassley that while this year’s seasonal flu vaccine "will contain protection against 2009 H1N1," they’re encouraging states to keep a supply of this year’s vaccine on hand, in case there’s a rerun of the panic of 2009.

Copyright 2014 Kaiser Health News. To see more, visit http://www.kaiserhealthnews.org/.

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