FDA finds 5 million more flu vaccines abroad; CDC ethics panel to help state and local officials distribute doses

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Food and Drug Administration inspectors will visit vaccine plants in Germany and Canada to confirm that five million additional doses of flu vaccine meet U.S. standards, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson announced on Thursday.

"If they find that it is safe, we will import it," Thompson said of the doses created by GlaxoSmithKline Plc in Germany and ID Biomedical in Canada.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention created on Monday, for the first time in its history, a permanent panel of ethicists on vaccine distribution to help distributors determine who should receive vaccine priority now and in future epidemics.

Deciding whether the elderly should have priority over babies, or vice versa, in receiving the flu vaccine during this season's shortage is a tough decision, admits CDC Director Julie L. Gerberding. The flu hospitalizes 200,000 people and kills an average of 36,000 people in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC. The elderly are the most likely to die from it.

To prevent future shortages, legislators and several national health organizations are pushing for the passage of the Flu Protection Act by Congress during its upcoming lame-duck session. The act calls for the CDC to develop a contingency plan in case of another vaccine shortage, offers incentives to encourage vaccine production in the U.S. and sets aside funds to encourage the creation of companies who produce the vaccines quickly.

The number of cosponsors for the bill has doubled since Chiron Corp., one of the U.S. vaccine suppliers this season, announced earlier this month that it could not provide the U.S. with nearly 50 million doses of flu vaccine. Inspectors took away Chiron's license because the facilities did not meet quality standards.