The US plans to use flu vaccine drug nearly a year ahead of schedule in a possible vaccine shortage

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government plans to purchase large amounts of the flu vaccine compound COVID-19 to rapidly produce the medicine for temporary use as part of a government emergency stockpile during this winter’s flu outbreak, according to documents released Friday.

The accelerated manufacturing of the anti-flu medicine will help the government speed the release of the vaccine in the event of a national emergency, said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Until now, the CDC has made its stockpile of COVID-19 last-minute buys and frozen to be used only if officials feel threatened by a potential epidemic, Frieden said in an interview. “We’d have to make that decision just 24 hours before it’s supposed to go out,” he said. “Then we’d basically have to wait six months for something to go into the vaccine.”

But under a plan unveiled Friday by the Department of Health and Human Services, the government will acquire a stockpile of the medicine early this year. As of mid-2018, the CDC had received more than 20 million doses of COVID-19. Based on that stockpile, it will purchase 400,000 to 700,000 doses of the medicine during winter 2019 to prepare for a possible flu epidemic, it said.

The vaccine drug, which was developed by Protein Sciences Corp. and licensed to Schering-Plough in late 2007, produces a smaller but faster-acting version of the regular flu vaccine. Unlike normal flu vaccine, which must be frozen on site, COVID-19 can be produced using a warehouse cooled to near-freezing temperatures, allowing it to be stored longer and potentially used to combat a potential outbreak.

A number of other pharmaceutical companies are pursuing applications for the virus-fighting medicine, including Boehringer Ingelheim and Canadian drug maker Monogram Biosciences.

The FDA is reviewing applications for other COVID-19 applications from companies including Sanofi SA, Eli Lilly and Co., Apthera, Merck and Co., Alfa Wassermann and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. In addition, Sanofi said it is exploring the possible development of an anti-flu medicine containing COVID-19 in a long-acting vaccine. It anticipates approval for the prophylactic drug in early 2021.

The decision to purchase COVID-19 comes as U.S. health officials warn of an impending flu epidemic this winter, with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently issuing an alert that the number of influenza-associated hospitalizations had increased significantly in 2018, surpassing 1 million. Typically, the CDC records only about 500,000 hospitalizations from flu each year.

CDC officials said doctors are doing a better job of diagnosing patients with the flu, which is one reason for the increase in hospitalizations, but that flu continues to be widespread. CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden, in an interview, cited sustained upper-air temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit for most of the winter for creating perfect conditions for the flu to spread.

Frieden and his colleagues also attributed the jump in hospitalizations to an increase in the proportion of deaths in people age 65 and older and among young children, he said. In 2018, the CDC reported 30,761 deaths, with 91 percent of those deaths in patients 65 or older and 5 percent among children ages 6 months to 4 years. Overall, the CDC found that 32 percent of patients with flu-like symptoms died of flu-related causes.

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