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There wasn’t any waste over swine flu vaccines, says health minister

By Lindsay Fergus and Emily Moulton

Health Minister Michael McGimpsey has hit back overallegations that he “wasted” taxpayers’ money purchasing hundreds of thousands of swine flu vaccines — 60% of which have not been administered.

It comes after it emerged that 500,000 vaccines costing millions of pounds have had to be stockpiled after the much-hyped pandemic never materialised.

Just five months ago Northern Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride warned: “Swine flu has the potential to be one of the biggest public health threats we have ever faced, not just this year, but into the future.”

Since he made those comments 15 people from Northern Ireland have died from swine flu and the majority of victims had underlying health problems.

However, when the Belfast Telegraph tried to contact Dr McBride yesterday we were initially told he would not be able to speak to us ahead of a meeting of health chiefs next week to discuss a UK-wide strategy over what to do with the excess vaccinations.

We also contacted the Department of Health and put the following questions to Mr McGimpsey and Mr McBride:

Do they feel the World Health Organisation (WHO) over-estimated the danger of swine-flu?

Do they feel the ordering of bulk quantities was unnecessary?

Does the Department/Minister/Dr McBride feel they were misled over the urgency to stockpile vaccinations?

In response, the Health Minister said: “It is appropriate that we hold enough vaccine to deal with any future waves of swine flu. It is therefore wrong to say that these are wasted vaccines when the vaccination programme is still ongoing.”

Dr McBride did not respond.

Mr McGimpsey also confirmed that plans to review how the pandemic was handled across all four UK countries were being finalised.

In July, the Health Minister found himself embroiled in a stand-off with the DUP after seeking an extra £55m of funding to combat swine flu. Agreement was finally reached on extra resources in October.

Mr McGimpsey said in November: “This included help in meeting the £64m estimated costs of swine flu, to which I contributed £32m.”

It also meant, and Mr McGimpsey conceded, that there was still some deficit to be accounted for which resulted in an impact on other health services. “The recent decision to defer bowel cancer screening is an example of the difficult decisions which have to be made.”

Calls have now been made for a review to be conducted into the handling of the swine flu outbreak.

The Department of Health bought more than 750,000 vaccines, although only 252,182 have been administered to date.

SDLP health spokesman Conall McDevitt said serious questions had been raised about whether global drugs companies have profited from the swine flu outbreak and has called on Mr McGimpsey to initiate a review.

“It appears that the drug companies may be the big winners,” he said. “Everyone agrees that the Government must do everything to protect the population from a potential pandemic. However, the experience of swine flu does raise questions which need addressed.

“GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical company which manufactures the vaccine being used here, reported a 30% increase in sales. In the last quarter of 2009 they claim to have sold £8bn dollars worth of product. This raises questions about whether the global drugs companies have profited from the swine flu outbreak. In the future it is important we review purchasing arrangements to make sure governments do not end up paying out millions on vaccines that do not get used.”

His sentiments were echoed by DUP Stormont Health Committee member Alex Easton who said he believed the WHO overplayed the seriousness of swine flu.

“I do think the swine flu episode has been overplayed by WHO and I think we have been left in the situation of having spent millions of pounds on Tamiflu vaccinations that we may never need.”

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