Exclusive: Trump to order drive for improved flu vaccine

Flu shot

President Donald Trump would direct the health department to develop an alternative to seasonal flu vaccines, which are largely produced overseas and grown in hen’s eggs. | David Goldman/AP Photo

President Donald Trump is readying an executive order that would direct HHS to overhaul the development of flu vaccine and encourage more Americans to get vaccinated, say nine people with knowledge of the plan and according to internal documents reviewed by POLITICO.

The move represents a significant reversal from a president who spent years attacking the safety of vaccines prior to taking office. However, it would largely codify work that’s already underway at HHS, and budget officials and Congress have yet to sign off on additional funding, said four individuals with knowledge of the strategy.

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Trump would direct the health department to develop an alternative to seasonal flu vaccines, which are largely produced overseas and grown in hen’s eggs. Research in this direction has been funded through HHS and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority for the past decade.

Trump also would create an interagency task force led by health and global security officials to monitor progress and explore new economic incentives to develop better vaccines. The Council of Economic Advisers is planning to issue a separate report on flu vaccines, said three individuals with knowledge of the report.

HHS and the White House did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Trump’s order reflects his health department’s concerns about the state of U.S. emergency preparedness, sparked by last year’s severe flu outbreak. CDC reported that overall hospitalization from flu during the 2017-2018 season was the highest level in at least the past decade, and 186 children had died from flu, the most during a regular flu season on record.

The flu vaccine that season was only 40 percent effective, CDC officials said. The current year’s vaccine was even less effective, at 29 percent, but the disease was less virulent.

Most current flu vaccines are incubated in eggs, with production starting several months before the seasonal flu actually arrives because of the complexity of the process. A few U.S. vaccines are produced using cells or recombinant technologies that scientists hope will make it easier and faster to produce better vaccines. The ultimate goal is a universal flu vaccine, usable for multiple years in a row, but such a vaccine is purely experimental for now.

Although flu vaccine makers have been well-reimbursed to assure a steady supply of vaccines over the past decade, they feel they lack economic incentives to shift production to the newer vaccine technologies, said officials with knowledge of Trump’s strategy.

Trump’s order seemingly marks a personal reversal for the president, who spent years promoting debunked claims about the safety of childhood vaccines.

“Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes – AUTISM,” Trump tweeted in 2014. “Many such cases!”

Trump’s skepticism helped contribute to an anti-vaccine movement that has crept into the GOP mainstream, although he hasn’t criticized vaccine safety since being elected president. He abandoned early plans for a vaccine review commission and even urged Americans in April to get measles vaccinations. Trump’s early 2018 conversation with Bill Gates on the need for a universal flu vaccine also shifted the president’s thinking, said three individuals with knowledge of the strategy.

Senior Trump health officials, however, have consistently stressed the need for Americans to get vaccinated against common illnesses. HHS Secretary Alex Azar in April 2019 applauded Trump’s call to support vaccines for measles and said the science refuting an autism link to vaccines has “been settled.”

Trump health officials have been reviewing the flu vaccine strategy for more than a year and considered including an announcement in the 2019 State of the Union address, said three people with knowledge of the plan. The officials have been negotiating for more funds with the office of Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the House Democrat who oversees appropriations for the health department.

DeLauro’s subcommittee in May directed HHS to allocate $200 million toward developing a universal flu vaccine. The appropriations bill is working its way through Congress.

Arthur Allen contributed to this report.