Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer has defended comments he made that swine flu had the potential to be one of the biggest health threats the public would face and insisted the pandemic is not over.
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Michael McBride said he stood by his assessment five months ago and insisted that despite an overall drop in the number of people presenting with the illness, the H1N1 virus still posed a threat in the community.
His remarks come following revelations that out of the 751,200 vaccinations purchased by the Department of Health, more than 420,000 vaccines have not been administered raising questions as to whether this pandemic had been over-hyped and if global drug companies have profited from the swine flu outbreak.
“Obviously we all make comments based on the information we have available at the time,” he said last night. “I think we need to look at this from a historical perspective. We have had four pandemics this century and last.
“If we take for example the 1918 pandemic, it had relatively mild waves to start with, and was a very mild illness which eventually resulted in death of 50 million people worldwide.
“Flu viruses are notoriously unpredictable. You cannot predict at the
start of a flu outbreak, one that the population has never met before, how that virus will change, if it will change and therefore you need to make decisions on how best to protect the population.
“So in terms of those decisions I made back whenever it was, I certainly stand by those decisions.”
Dr McBride also defended the decision to purchase the large amount of vaccines, but he would not be drawn on whether he thought it was necessary or if the department had a choice in how many doses it could purchase.
This week it has emerged that some of the major drug companies have posted record profits from the sales of their swine flu vaccinations.
GlaxoSmithKline, which manufactures the inhaler Relenza which is used by pregnant women, sold more than £720 million worth of the drug last year compared to £57m the year before.
Dr McBride insisted the stockpiling was not a “waste” because the vaccination programme was still ongoing and highlighted that it was possible Northern Ireland could be hit by a third wave of the outbreak.
Our questions... and Chief Medical Officer’s answers
Q: Is the pandemic over?
A: There seems to be this impression that this virus has gone away. It has not gone away. This virus is still circulating, the figures you will see in the bulletin this week reflect that. We have seen a slight increase in GP consultations and there has been an outbreak in a school this week. So this virus is still out there.
Q: Do you feel the ordering of bulk quantities of vaccines was necessary?
A: All of these decisions were made by ministers at a UK level from the best scientific advice across the world, from the World Health Organization by the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisation and SAGE. Ministers only ever made any decision based on that advice.
Q: The Belfast Telegraph was told the Department of Health did not have a choice; it was either buy in bulk or go to the back of the queue?
A: On the basis of the information that was available to ministers and on the basis of the best scientific advice and best public health advice, the right decision was made at the time and I have no hesitation in saying that.
Q: But were you given a choice in how much you could order?
A: I am not going to go into details of ministerial discussions and the options that were presented to ministers. But clearly our priority was that we were in a position, as the minister (Mr McGimpsey) said, to protect everyone at risk and there was a decision made to protect every man,
woman and child who wanted to take up the offer of the vaccine.
Q: So you don’t feel this has been a waste of money?
A: To date we have received three quarters of a million vaccines in Northern Ireland. We have issued well over half of that to frontline services. That leaves a balance and we do not yet know whether or not we are going to see a third wave of this virus.
Q: Do you feel you may have been misled over the urgency to stockpile vaccines?
A: Vaccines take time to manufacture. We said from the outset this vaccine would take six months and it took six months. It’s the first time in a global pandemic we have had a vaccine. All of us made decisions and we gave advice on the information that was given to us. And the decisions we have made have prevented excess deaths.
Q: Do you feel drug companies have profited from this?
A: I honestly don’t know. In terms of profits of drug companies I am not in a position to comment on that.
Q: So it is likely you will keep the vaccines?
A: The answer to that is that we are using them. We are actively using them at the moment. There is a programme that is ongoing. Of course we will be keeping a stockpile of the vaccination should the virus re-emerge. To not do so would be wrong.