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FLU VACCINE SHORTAGE POINTS BUSH TO CANADA

So now it's OK to import drugs from Canada, sort of, and only temporarily.

After days of denial and scapegoating, the Bush administration said it would buy up to 2.6 million doses of influenza vaccine from that bastion of old-Europe style governance to our north. One can only wonder if Bush would have permitted this dalliance with Canadian-style health care if the fears about the shortage of flu vaccine hadn't exploded during the climax of a close presidential race.

The tortuous path by which the Bush White House reached the decision was a kind of microcosm of the grudging way the president has dealt over the last 11 months with the drip-drip of the real truth about Iraq.

First came the right-wing dictum that anything associated with Canadian health care was bad for America. The entire Western New York Republican House delegation knuckled under to Bush and campaign money from the pharmaceutical industry in 2003. Fourteen months ago, they voted against reimportation of any prescription drugs from Canada that might help American seniors pay the the price of staying alive.

Even as news of the U.S. vaccine shortage started to leak, Bush in the second debate defiantly intoned the dogma, speaking of Canada as though it were some fetid banana Republic: "I just want to make sure that when a drug comes in from Canada it cures you, and doesn't kill you," he said.

Then came bigger headlines about the vaccine shortage. Tommy Thompson, Bush's secretary of health and human services, at first said the vaccines in Canada aren't licensed for sale in the United States and won't be licensed in time for the 2004-05 flu season.

Then on signal from the White House, Thompson tried a dodge. He blamed the shortage on drug manufacturers who are afraid of being victimized by trial lawyers. Thompson also said Democrats "want to scare the elderly" by pointing up the vaccine shortage.

He relented a bit, promising to offer a phone number for those seeking flu shots and advised worried Americans "to take a deep breath."

Dr. Julia L. Gerberding offered a modern version of the 18th century Bourbon invitation, "Let Them Eat Cake." The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who is answerable to Thompson, advised seniors against standing in line at clinics. She said they should instead call ahead for appointments with their doctors.

The trouble is that very few doctors have the vaccine this year; but then big-shots like Gerberding and Thompson and congressional leaders never have to stand in line for anything. (Members of the House and Senate and thousands of congressional staffers, by the way, will have no trouble getting a flu shot.)

Missing from all this malarkey is how the magic of the marketplace -- the Republican catechism -- has affected the availability of vaccines. There's virtually no profit in making flu vaccines. They cost just $3 at the factory door. That's why there's a shortage here, and a guaranteed shot -- and a surplus -- for everyone in Canada. You see, Canadians are burdened with an old-fashioned sense of community.

With Election Day bearing down, the administration finally said that Canadian flu vaccines will be admitted temporarily through an "investigational new drug" application. The 2.6 million Canadian doses, however, won't arrive until two months after Election Day.

The administration is putting out word that there really won't be a very serious influenza problem this year, although the American College of Emergency Physicians meeting in San Francisco said the vaccine shortage was a "potential catastrophe."

Of course, no one will know the truth of it until inauguration day, Jan. 20.

e-mail: dturner@buffnews.com