WASHINGTON – President Bush said Wednesday night that Canadian help was on the way to relieve the flu vaccine shortage. But America’s top health official and other experts said Thursday that getting more supplies of vaccine from Canada is unlikely.

There isn’t enough time for U.S. regulators to approve a Canadian vaccine, and Canada doesn’t have enough to spare, they said.

Bush in Wednesday’s debate said discussions with Canada would “help us realize the vaccine necessary to make sure our citizens have got flu vaccinations during this upcoming season.”

After the debate, Bush aides made it sound like help from Canada was a good bet.

But the next morning, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson told reporters that it was “doubtful” that a Canadian flu vaccine – or a German one – could get Food and Drug Administration approval in time for this influenza season.

Quebec-based ID Biomedical has had discussions with U.S. health officials about the availability of flu vaccine, but those were mostly about future sales, said spokeswoman Michele Roy. ID Biomedical’s vaccine is not licensed in the United States, and the company has only about 1 million to 1.5 million doses to spare, “not much to you because you need over 45 million,” she said.

GlaxoSmithKline, which makes a German vaccine that also is not licensed in the United States, wants to get into the U.S. market in the future, but not this year and also has virtually no excess supplies, said spokeswoman Danielle Hallstrom.

FDA approval is a long process and unlikely to happen in time for this year, said University of Michigan public health professor Dr. Arnold Monto, a leading flu expert.

Monto said U.S. regulators have not certified the Canadian manufacturing process for the flu vaccine. In contrast, many Canadian prescription drugs are already made in U.S. plants according to American safety specifications.

This year’s vaccine shortage is taking on political overtones.

The Bush administration has opposed the reimportation of drugs from Canada, where they are typically sold for lower prices. The president’s opponent, Sen. John Kerry, supports reimporting prescription drugs from Canada.

Consumer advocates support reimportation because it saves patients between 30 to 70 percent over U.S. drug prices, which are the highest in the world.

Calling on Canada to rescue America on flu vaccine, but not to export other prescription drugs shows “the hypocrisy of the current administration,” said Andy Troszok, president of the Canadian International Pharmacy Association, a trade group.

The issue is safety, said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a medical doctor. The difference is that with reimported prescription drugs, the U.S. cannot guarantee the supply line of where the drugs go after coming out of the factories, he said.

“The Canadian government will not certify drugs coming into this country as safe,” Frist said. “The United States of America, through the Food and Drug Administration, will not certify, so there is no way we’re going to allow those drugs to come into this country when Canada says they can’t certify safety. A particular drug like a vaccine, I’ll bet you Canada will say that’s safe if it is safe, and I bet you the United States will.”

Kerry on Thursday mocked the president’s debate comments in what his aides said was a criticism of Bush’s overall health plan.

“What’s the president’s solution? He says, don’t get one if you’re healthy. Sounds kind of just like his health care plan: hope and pray you don’t get sick,” Kerry said at an AARP convention.

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