WHEELING - If you haven't received your swine flu shot yet, don't worry. The H1N1 vaccine will be part of this coming fall's seasonal inoculation concoction.
The batch of swine flu vaccine being combined with two seasonal strains, however, won't be leftovers created in response to last year's epidemic. It will be new.
Many of the outdated doses - about 40 million of them - that were not given to anyone soon will be incinerated. About a quarter, or $260 million worth, of the swine flu vaccine produced for the U.S. public has expired.
"It's a lot, by historical standards," said Jerry Weir, who oversees vaccine research and review for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The amount, as much as four times the usual leftover seasonal flu vaccine, likely sets a record. And that's not all of it. About 30 million more doses will expire later and may go unused, according to one government estimate. If all that vaccine expires, more than 43 percent of the supply for the U.S. public will have gone to waste.
In Ohio County, health department Administrator Howard Gamble said he still has swine flu vaccine available that will not expire until 2011.
"We have a very, very small number on the shelf. And we can still get it, if necessary," Gamble said.
He noted the health department took swine flu clinics off its weekly schedule because no one was coming to get the shot. Before the decline in demand, the health department administered about 8,000 doses of swine flu vaccine.
Federal officials defended the huge purchase as a necessary risk in the face of a never-before-seen virus. Many health experts had feared the new flu could be the deadly global epidemic they had long warned about, but it ended up killing fewer people than seasonal flu.
"Although there were many doses of vaccine that went unused, it was much more appropriate to have been prepared for the worst case scenario than to have had too few doses," said Bill Hall, spokesman for U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Most leading health experts generally agree with that.
"We were faced with the first pandemic we'd had in 40 years. We had to ensure there would be enough vaccine for our nation," said Dr. Mark Mulligan, an Emory University researcher who was involved in testing the vaccine.
Gamble also believes public health responded appropriately.
"We had to produce enough to inoculate everybody who wanted it. We had to be prepared to vaccinate every citizen in every part of the country," he said. "No one could foresee that this would end quickly. We had to be prepared."
Many average Americans also agreed earlier this year, said Robert Blendon, a Harvard University professor who conducts polls on public health. He said a Harvard poll in January found that 59 percent of Americans would prefer the flu vaccine be over-ordered to ensure enough was available, even if it meant doses went unused.
Millions of doses of flu vaccine typically go unused every year and are marked for burning, but in recent years the leftovers amounted to closer to 10 percent of the supply, rather than the 25 percent expiring now. Government flu experts couldn't recall throwing away anything close to 40 million doses before.
The new H1N1 swine flu emerged in April last year, hitting children and young adults particularly hard. It was difficult to predict how deadly it might be or how easily it might spread. Federal health officials pushed five vaccine manufacturers to quickly produce a vaccine. What's more, they wanted a lot of it - many experts thought most people would need two doses for it to work.
The government placed three orders last year for a combined total of nearly 200 million doses - an unprecedented amount and almost double the amount of vaccine made in recent years for seasonal flu.
About 162 million doses were meant for the general public. Another 36 million included doses for the military and other countries.
But demand never took off, for several reasons:
Tests of the vaccine soon showed only one dose was enough to protect most people.
Much of the vaccine was not ready until late 2009, after the largest wave of swine flu illnesses passed.
Swine flu turned out not to be as deadly as was first feared. About 12,000 deaths have been attributed to it - or roughly a third of the estimated annual deaths from seasonal flu.