When vaccine predictions missed the mark: doctors say 2009 and 1976 offer lessons

Experts skeptical of 'Warp Speed' timelines
Posted at 5:22 PM, Sep 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-11 20:45:36-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — The CDC is making plans to distribute millions of doses of a coronavirus vaccine by late next month, but government officials have gotten these predictions wrong in the past.

Doctors and scientists say there are reasons to be skeptical of the timelines laid out by Operation Warp Speed based on the lessons of 2009 and 1976.

During the height of the H1N1 Pandemic in 2009, San Diegans waited in long lines to get vaccinated only to find there were not many doses to go around.

The CDC initially projected there would be 120 million doses of vaccine ready by October 2009. Then federal officials scaled back the projection to 45 million.

By the end of October, only 23 million doses would become available due to delays in the manufacturing process.

“The lesson of H1N1 is that you may make all the plans on paper, but the actual nuts and bolts of rolling it out is really challenging and not to be underestimated,” said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at UC San Francisco.

Manufacturers had trouble growing the H1N1 vaccine in chicken eggs, the most common method for producing flu vaccines. There were also issues with testing the vaccine’s potency and problems switching production lines from the seasonal flu vaccine to the H1N1 strain, according to an after-action report by the Department of Health and Human Services.

A lot goes into making a vaccine, said Dr. Rahul Gupta of March of Dimes.

“It's not just the vaccine but also the syringes, and the needles, and the stoppers, and the alcohol pads,” he said. “There are so many other things that go along when we talk about a vaccine.”

By the time the vaccine was widely available, the pandemic had petered out.

Experts say there are also some parallels to what happened in 1976.

During the height of an election cycle, President Gerald Ford fast-tracked a vaccine after some soldiers on a military base in New Jersey got sick with a strain of H1N1, then called Swine Flu, that was genetically similar to the strain that killed millions in 1918.

“Some scientists were telling Gerald Ford that this was going to be as bad as Spanish Flu,” said Dr. Chin-Hong.

The U.S. launched a huge media campaign, urging Americans to get vaccinated.

President Ford rolled up his sleeve and got the vaccine, along with one-quarter with the U.S. population, beginning in October of 1976.

However, the viral strain they were worried about never spread beyond the military base, and there were rare side effects linked to the vaccine. Of the 45 million people inoculated, about 450 people developed Guillain–Barré syndrome and about 30 people died.

One month after the vaccinations began, Ford lost the election and the episode became known as the “Swine Flu Affair.”

Experts say it’s normal to have adverse reactions and production delays on the road to a vaccine.

“We have to understand that’s a process. And we learn as we go along. And people have to trust the process as well,” Dr. Gupta said.

But doctors say it’s a process that takes a lot of coordination, and there are aspects you just don’t want to rush.