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Cost of flu shot soars in shortage Gouging, scam under close watch
Kerry Fehr-Snyder The Arizona Republic Nov. 9, 2000
Arizona has yet to be hit by the flu, but the state is being surrounded by others with the dreaded virus amid a nationwide delay of vaccine shipments that has led to price gouging.
The price increases have prompted a strong rebuke from the American Medical Association and a warning to consumers about a scam in which donations are being sought to buy the serum for the elderly. Two federal agencies are warning consumers not to give their credit card numbers out over the phone to solicitors seeking donations to buy the vaccine.
"Medical price gouging is unethical and threatens the health of those who need the vaccination most," the AMA said in a statement. "It is not an exaggeration to say that these ruthless business practices could result in serious illness or death."
Inflated prices and the telemarketing scam surfaced recently in the wake of a four- to eight-week delay in large shipments of the flu vaccine.
The AMA did not provide specific examples. But at least one distributor, Paragon Scientific of Austin increased its price on a 10-shot vaccine vial to $135 from about $20 last year.
"Everybody marks up and is taking their cut," said Margaret Knight, a sales representative for Paragon Scientific. "Price gouging is going on everywhere."
Although no flu cases have been reported in Arizona, the virus had surfaced in 15 states as of Oct. 28. Included in the list are Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and Texas.
In some cases, the flu has been deadly. The proportion of deaths attributed to pneumonia and influenza was 6.8 percent of this year's flu cases, which is considered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as below the epidemic threshold for this time of year. An actual number of deaths was not available.
Although some vaccinations have been given in the Valley, many public clinics have been canceled after manufacturers have been unable to make enough vaccine to meet demand.
On Friday, the CDC ordered an additional 9 million doses of the vaccine to make sure the temporary shortage doesn't turn into a permanent one. The order will bring to 75 million doses expected to be given this flu season. Last flu season, 77 million doses were distributed in the United States.
The CDC is getting the additional doses from Aventis Pasteur Inc., which is charging the public sector about $30 per 10-dose vial. The private sector will pay about $50 per 10-shot vial.
The only other manufacturer making flu vaccine is Medeva, a United Kingdom company. Its distributor, General Injectables & Vaccines Inc. in Bastion, Va., declined to say how much it is charging.
"We don't disclose price," spokeswoman Susan Vassallo said. "But I can tell you that the price has gone up considerably."
Vassallo said part of the price hike is related to the additional costs the company is incurring to handle an estimated 750 calls it receives every day from customers wanting to order the vaccine.
"We're operating literally on a day-by-day basis to get the vaccine," she said. "Given the severe shortage, there's supply-and-demand issues."
Neither the CDC nor the Food and Drug Administration, which licenses vaccine makers, are accepting responsibility for this year's temporary shortage. They blame the situation on private manufacturers and say they have no authority to intervene when problems like this arise.
"We can't force anyone to be in the business, to make the product," FDA spokeswoman Lenore Gelb said.
The delay in this year's vaccine is largely due to problems that arose after manufacturers were unable to grow a third strain of the influenza virus expected to be prevalent this season. Since the vaccine is required to be "trivalent," or effective against three different strains, the manufacturers couldn't settle on a "bivalent" vaccine that works against just two strains, Gelb said.
Although the federal government ensures that enough vaccine will be available eventually and in time for the worst flu months of December and January, the agencies can't guarantee a similar temporary shortage won't occur in future years.
"The CDC and FDA has done as much as we can," Gelb said
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), November 09, 2000