On August 26, POGO wrote to Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, asking her to disclose certain information about the production of vaccine for H1N1 swine flu. It is information difficult or impossible to obtain from online government sites. For example, the striking dependence of the U.S. on foreign sources of vaccine in a pandemic is one of several problems that should be disclosed and explained on the government website, www.pandemicflu.gov.
In their August 26 letter to Secretary Sebelius, POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian and Staff Scientist Ned Feder called on the Secretary to establish a new policy of full transparency in the vaccine program – specifically, full online disclosure of all significant information about the government's program for production of swine flu vaccine, except for information required by law to be kept confidential.
There will almost certainly not be enough vaccine for all who want it, and there may be a serious shortage. Less than half of the total supply of swine flu vaccine for the U.S. population (perhaps only 20 or 30 percent of the total supply) is being manufactured in this country; the federal government depends on foreign sources for the rest. By now the extreme dependence of the U.S. on imported vaccine should have been announced and explained by the government. Instead the estimated percentages just cited came from two non‑government experts – one writing in the Washington Post 1 and one quoted by the Associated Press. 2 Both express concern that foreign governments may block export of vaccine if the pandemic worsens and vaccine is needed for their own populations.
Through a directive to her senior staff, Secretary Sebelius could ensure the online posting of detailed information on the availability of vaccine in this country – with and without foreign sources of vaccine included. In addition, the repeated decisions by DHHS officials to rely heavily on foreign sources of vaccine for use in a pandemic should be explained.
For more than a year, POGO has urged greater transparency in the vaccine program. In a report in March 2008, Pandemic Flu: Lack of Leadership and Disclosure Plague Vaccine Program, 3 POGO pressed the then-Secretary of HHS Mike Leavitt to disclose information about a wide range of shortcomings, including the U.S. dependence on foreign sources. POGO followed the report with a series of requests and warnings, first to Secretary Leavitt, now to Secretary Sebelius.4
In today's letter to Secretary Sebelius, POGO is once again pressing for full public disclosure in the vaccine program: "The shortcomings of plans made by the government in the past should be displayed, not hidden, so that the same mistakes won't be repeated. In addition, it is not too late to correct or ameliorate some of the current problems in vaccine production."
1. John M. Barry, "Pandemic Reality Check: What Can Be Done – and What Can't – To Protect Against H1N1." The Washington Post, June 23, 2009. Barry wrote that "only about 30 percent of the supply will be made in the United States." http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/22/AR2009062202386.html
2. The Associated Press story, "Fight for swine flu vaccine could get ugly," by Maria Cheng was posted on July 16, 2009, at http://www.mercurynews.com/nationworld/ci_12850495 as well as on many other sites. The expert quoted by the AP, Michael Osterholm, said that about 80 percent of the U.S. pandemic vaccine supply will come from abroad.
3. The report was released on March 6, 2008, at http://www.pogo.org/pogo-files/reports/public-health/pandemic-flu-vaccine-program/pandemic-flu-vaccine-program.html
4. April 6, 2008. Message on the need for full transparency to Secretary Leavitt through his online blog. http://archive.hhs.gov/secretarysblog/my_weblog/2008/03/pandemic-exerci.html
June 2, 2008 Article in Federal Times. http://www.federaltimes.com/index.php?S=3555398 http://pogoarchives.org/m/science/flu-vaccine/panflu-federaltimes-20080601.pdf
April 28, 2009. Online commentary, "Pandemic Flu Thrreat Raises Question: Is U.S. Ready to Protect the Public?" http://www.pogo.org/pogo-files/alerts/public-health/ph-pfv-20090428.html
July 20, 2009. Online commentary, "Flu Vaccine Shortage? The Whole Truth, Please." http://www.pogo.org/pogo-files/alerts/public-health/ph-pfv-20090720.html
July 20, 2009. Letter to Secretary Sebelius.