Scotland racks up £55m swine flu bill

THE Scottish Government has spent more than £1 million a week battling the swine flu virus over the past 12 months, The Scotsman can reveal.

• Picture: PA

Ahead of the first anniversary of the outbreak, health secretary Nicola Sturgeon said the pandemic had cost the administration 55m so far. The total cost will be significantly higher as that figure does not include the costs of planning for a flu pandemic or of creating an initial antiviral stockpile.

In an interview with The Scotsman, Ms Sturgeon also revealed 93,000 doses of antiviral drugs had been handed out in Scotland, with more than 730,000 people vaccinated against the H1N1 virus.

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While a large stockpile of 3.4m anitiviral doses and 500,000 vaccines remain unused, the minister defended the government's planning and said she would make the same decisions again.

Critics have questioned whether a better deal could have been struck with pharmaceutical companies to reduce the huge cost of buying pandemic vaccines – believed to run into hundreds of millions of pounds across the UK.

But others said it was impossible to predict how mild or severe the virus would be and UK authorities were right to plan for the worst-case scenario, despite the huge costs.

Ms Sturgeon said swine flu, which emerged in Mexico a year ago, had given Scotland the opportunity to test its pandemic plans.

She said what had been learned would help the country cope with a future pandemic, such as one involving H5N1 bird flu, which remained a risk.

But Ms Sturgeon admitted the mildness of the swine flu pandemic meant Scotland had not been fully tested for a more severe outbreak.

"Although it is useful in terms of planning for the future, we shouldn't necessarily tell ourselves that we have been through a pandemic that was as severe as a pandemic might be," she said.

Ms Sturgeon denied claims the pandemic had been overhyped and said they had been right to prepare for the worst- case scenario. Initially, it had been suggested as many as 65,000 people across the UK could die as a result of swine flu.

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"It wasn't overhyped. When I think back to a year ago this weekend, we were dealing with a new strain of virus. Some of the early indications coming out of Mexico were pretty grim in terms of fatalities and severity of illness," Ms Sturgeon said.

"We and the experts had, quite literally, no idea how this would develop."

She said new figures showed the Scottish Government spent 55m responding to the swine flu pandemic in 2009-10, including buying extra drugs, vaccines and setting up a helpline.

In England, about 500m was spent during the pandemic, with a further 500m going to build up antiviral supplies before the pandemic started.

In Scotland, 3.5m doses of the antiviral drugs Tamiflu and Relenza were made available after the pandemic began to help lessen the impact of the illness.

Of these, 93,000 were given to patients during the pandemic, meaning more than 3.4m doses remain unused.

The Scottish Government said the drugs had a shelf-life of five years so could be used in the future with seasonal flu and in the event of another pandemic.

More than 730,000 people have been vaccinated against swine flu. Ms Sturgeon said this left them with a stockpile of some 500,000 unused jabs, but some of these could still be used.

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About 88,000 people are estimated to have seen their GP with swine flu symptoms. But the total number affected in Scotland could have been 500,000.

Ms Sturgeon said the UK administrations had no choice but to order vaccine to cover the whole population. "I and my colleagues across the UK were sitting with very specific advice saying we don't know enough to safely say we can order less than what we ordered," she said.

"Every decision we took was based on the best scientific advice that we had available. It would been a very brave health minister who said, 'I'm just going to order half of what you are suggesting and keep my fingers crossed that you're wrong and I'm right'. It is easy to apply hindsight but, based on what we knew at the time, the decisions were right.

The UK governments have now struck a deal with GSK, the largest provider of the pandemic vaccine, which means the order has been capped and the price reduced. But millions of vaccines remain unused.

Asked if a better deal could have been struck with manufacturers, Ms Sturgeon said: "I am sure there would be aspects of the UK review that will look at issues of value for money."

But she added: "The arrangements with the manufacturers served us well. They allowed us to get stocks of the vaccine as quickly as possible to start vaccinating people."

Overall in Scotland, 69 people died with swine flu, and 1,542 were hospitalised. In England, the figures were 359 and 2,930.

Some figures have suggested Scotland had the third-highest death rate in the world. But Ms Sturgeon put this down to Scotland having more robust surveillance methods than other countries, making comparisons inaccurate.

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She said there was no evidence that Scotland was harder hit by the virus or the country's poorer general health could have increased deaths.

Allyson Pollock, professor of international public health policy at Edinburgh University, questioned whether a better deal on the cost of the vaccine could have been struck. She said: "It was an awful lot of money that was spent and perhaps the science underpinning it wasn't as secure as it should have been.

"The pharmaceutical industry made a lot of money from this vaccine. It was very expensive and we didn't have a sale-or-return basis. I don't think it was a very good deal for the public purse."

But Aberdeen-based microbiologist Hugh Pennington said the UK governments had had no choice but to react as they did.

We may face infection second wave, say experts

THE UK is "not out of the woods yet" when it comes to tackling swine flu, experts have said.

The H1N1 strain of swine flu seen last summer and over the winter is likely to remain the dominant strain this coming flu season, they said.

The public perception is that "everyone's had it" and yet some parts of the country had been largely unaffected, with many people who should have had the swine flu vaccine remaining vulnerable, the experts said.

At a press conference in London, the experts said the UK's response to the pandemic had been proportionate.

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Professor Robert Dingwall, from the Institute for Science and Society at the University of Nottingham, said the UK had not been hit as badly as expected, partly because some people already had an immune response to the virus.

"But this does not mean that the virus is not capable of getting round these defences leading to a second wave of infection," he said.