BETHESDA, Md. —- A vaccine for the swine flu virus should be ready by mid-October, and the government is preparing to launch a voluntary nationwide vaccination program immediately after that, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Thursday.
When and how —- and even if —- the vaccination program will be implemented will ultimately be decided by scientists at the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and members of a national vaccination advisory board, Sebelius said at a summit on flu preparedness here. Yet three months after the new swine flu strain —- a new virus known as H1N1 —- first appeared in the United States, the only thing certain about it is that there's still a great deal of uncertainty over how severe and how widespread the flu may be this fall —- the start of the seasonal flu period.
So far 170 people in the United States have died from the swine flu, according to the CDC, and the World Health Organization reports 429 have died worldwide.
"Influenza may be the most unpredictable of all infectious diseases" and the new H1N1 strain is proving more unpredictable than most, Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC said at the conference at the National Institutes of Health here.
While the initial appearance of the virus was less severe than expected, "what that means for the fall, nobody knows," Frieden said.
Rather than wait and see, the Obama administration has decided to be aggressive in deploying resources —- including money —- to prepare for the potential of a major outbreak this fall.
Friday, Sebelius plans to officially announce $350 million in grants for states and hospitals to step-up state and local flu preparation efforts. That's in addition to more than $1 billion already set aside to pay for the development and production of a vaccine.
Georgia officials greeted word of the funding with applause.
"It is absolutely needed for us," said Georgia Department of Community Health Commissioner Dr. Rhonda Medows, who was at Thursday's summit. "This will help tremendously."
Dr. Patrick O'Neal, director of preparedness for department, said a statewide vaccine program would be a "massive" undertaking. In addition to schools and hospitals, the state may enlist EMS technicians and others to administer flu vaccines if necessary, said O'Neal.
Several pharmaceutical companies are working on developing vaccines now, and the National Institutes of Health plans to start testing them sometime in August. A swine flu vaccine would be separate from the seasonal flu vaccine.
First doses would go to health care workers, children and elderly patients with other illnesses who are considered most vulnerable to the disease.
Some lawmakers and others have questioned whether the Obama administration is going too far —- and spending too much money —- preparing for a flu that so far has been less severe than expected. The majority of people infected in the U.S. have recovered without medical treatment.
Republican U.S. Reps. Phil Gingrey (R-Marietta) and Paul Broun (R-Athens) —- both former doctors —- have said money being spent on vaccine development should instead be redirected to defense spending.
"What we see in this particular flu outbreak . . . is that I don't think [vaccines] are needed," Broun said in May.
Health officials at Thursday's summit disagreed.
"I don't think being prepared is ever a waste by any means," Medows said. The potential economic cost of lost jobs and lives because of a pandemic like H1N1, she and O'Neal said, far outweigh anything being spent to develop and deploy a vaccine.
In a live phone call from Italy to the flu conference, President Barack Obama said the preparations and spending are necessary because the potential for a wider spread of the flu this fall is high.
"I think it's clear that although we were fortunate not to see a more serious situation in the spring . . . the potential for a significant outbreak in the fall is looming," Obama said.