Homeland Security chairman: Not prepared for uptick in H1N1 cases

The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday said health authorities were underprepared for the increase in H1NI cases.

Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) also said federal agencies would be in bad shape if a mutated strain of H1N1 developed or if the nation faced another public health crisis while dealing with the so-called swine flu.

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“If this virus mutates or something else comes along, how is the vehicle to get us going in a manner any different than what we did with H1N1?” Thompson said in an interview.

Health officials are not overly worried that a mutated strain of the H1N1 virus is imminent, though mutations do occur and are possible.

A new strain of influenza emerges every couple of decades, and health officials attempt to detect such mutations early on so they can contain them. Otherwise, virus mutations can spread rapidly as officials struggle to react and make vaccines.

On Saturday, President Barrack Obama declared the upsurge in H1N1 cases a national public health emergency.

Thompson and Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) are concerned about the slow rate of production for the H1N1 vaccine. Health officials had hoped to have 50 million doses of the H1N1 vaccine by the middle of November and 150 million by December. But as of Wednesday, production still lagged behind, with only 22 million doses available to order.

“I think they would be totally overwhelmed at that point,” said Clarke, the chairwoman of the Homeland Security’s subcommittee on emerging threats, in reference to an outbreak of a mutated strain of H1N1. “The manufacturing of vaccine really needs to be widened out to many more manufacturing companies. Right now we’re competing with other nations for the same vaccine.”

The comments from Thompson and Clarke follow his panel’s hearing Tuesday with representatives from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which are working together to respond to the virus’s outbreak.

While HHS said that it was fairly well-prepared for H1N1 due in part to “the foresight of Congress” to spur the building of vaccine production facilities in the U.S., the agency also shared its concern that the lessons learned from the H1N1 outbreak would not be taken to heart after it had died down.

“My fear is that when this is over, we’ll just check the box and decide we don’t need to worry about a pandemic for another 30 years,” said Nicole Lurie, the assistant secretary for Health Affairs at HHS.

Both Thompson and Clarke said they hoped to hold more frequent oversight hearings and informal briefings to spur the agencies to stay ahead of the curve on the virus’s spread and mutations.