While the United States is preparing for shortages of swine flu vaccine, Canada expects to be able to have vaccine for any Canadian who wants it by late fall, says the head of the Public Health Agency of Canada.

"For Canadians, it's not a matter of if they can get the vaccine, but when," David Butler-Jones told Canada AM Thursday from Ottawa.

He explained that because Canada has had a contract since 2001 with GlaxoSmithKline to have it produce Canada's supply of vaccine during a pandemic, the country is now well-positioned to offer the vaccine to any Canadian who wants it.

While vaccine production has been slow, Canada plans to stretch supplies by using an adjuvant, a chemical sometimes added to vaccines to ramp up the response the immune system generates.

"Adjuvant, which reduces the amount of the actual antigen of the virus that you need to produce immunity, allows you to produce four vaccines or so, compared to, if you don't use adjuvant, just one vaccine," Butler-Jones explained.

GlaxoSmithKline should start clinical trials on the vaccine by October at the latest. If all goes well and the trials indicate the product is safe and effective, immunization programs will most likely begin in November.

While no vaccine shortages are expected, Butler-Jones said a list of who should be prioritized to get the vaccine first, should be ready by September so that those who need it first don't have to wait for it.

"You want a priority so that, for example, remote communities in the North, where the winter hits earlier, where flu season hits earlier, you would want that addressed earlier. Or those who are at greater risk of severe complications, you would want to immunize them earlier. Because three weeks can make a difference," he said.

He added that decisions on priority access will be based on the best available scientific evidence. Health authorities will be watching the kind of illness the virus causes in other parts of the world a little longer before making decisions on priority groups.

"We will wait closer to that time so that we have more information about what's happening in the south, what's happening in Canada, so that we can be sure we have the right priorities," he said.

U.S. vaccine-plan update

South of the border, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta announced at a news conference Wednesday that its advisory panel, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), wants the country to focus its vaccine programs on five groups that face a greater risk of serious illness.

The groups include:

  • pregnant women
  • people who live in homes with children under the age of six months
  • health workers and emergency personnel
  • people from six-months-old to 24-years-old
  • non-elderly people with underlying health problems

Once the demand for vaccine for these prioritized groups has been met, health providers should begin vaccinating everyone between 25 and 64, advised the panel, whose recommendations are usually adopted by U.S. health officials.

While there has been concern about the vaccine's delivery, the CDC said its vaccination program should be up and running by the fall.

Still, CDC spokeswoman Dr. Anne Schuchat, who oversees the CDC's flu vaccination programs, said setting an exact delivery date for the vaccine and knowing exactly how much will be available is difficult.

"As we've been telling you, with influenza vaccines -- whether they're seasonal or this new H1N1 vaccine -- production can be unpredictable," she said Wednesday afternoon.

"Right now, we are on track, expecting vaccine doses in the fall. Exactly how many, exactly when, will be tough to pinpoint."

Washington estimates that about 120 million swine flu vaccine doses will be available to the public by late October. Roughly 160 million people are in the priority groups considered most at risk for severe disease.

While there are more than 300 million people in the U.S., less than half of those recommended to get seasonal flu shots every year get them. Only about 15 per cent of pregnant women get seasonal flu vaccinations.

With reports from The Associated Press