July 5, 2014 4:35 pm
Updated: July 5, 2014 5:10 pm

Health Canada still concerned about Quebec flu vaccine plant

Bottles of flu vaccine rotate on a plate as they make their way through an assembly line on Dec. 9, 2004.

Jacques Bossinot/The Canadian Press

TORONTO – Health Canada has advised pharmaceutical giant GSK it wants to see an action plan for fixing problems at the country’s only flu vaccine production facility.

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GSK was given 30 days in which to lay out a proposal and timeline for resolving the problems at the facility, Health Canada said in an emailed response to questions from The Canadian Press.

The deadline was contained in a Health Canada inspection report that GSK – formerly GlaxoSmithKline – received on July 3, the company said via email.

“We have 30 days to review and respond to the findings noted in their report and we are committed to doing so by August 4, 2014,” said the email from Michelle Smolenaars Hunter, communications manager for GSK Canada.

Specifics of the problems Health Canada identified at the Ste. Foy, Que., plant were not revealed, though the department said some relate to infractions raised by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in a warning letter about the plant that it issued last month.

READ MORE: Flu shot halves risk of heart attack or stroke in heart disease patients, Canadian study suggests

Health Canada said it is currently writing a summary report of its findings and will release it when it is completed.

“We will not hesitate to take firm and immediate action should a serious risk to public health and safety be found,” the department stated, though it noted the situation does not pose an immediate threat to the health of Canadians.

Programs to administer vaccine in advance of next winter’s flu season won’t begin across the country until late October or November.

Health Canada said as the plant’s problems don’t pose an immediate risk to Canadians, the plant was given a “compliant” rating at the end of the inspection, which concluded June 20.

Smolenaars Hunter said that means that as of the time of the inspection GSK showed the plant’s activities were in compliance with the Food and Drugs Act and its regulations. She acknowledged, though, that a compliant rating does not mean corrective actions were not demanded.

“GSK remains fully committed to working with the FDA and Health Canada to ensure we adhere to the requirements of all Good Manufacturing Practices,” she said, referring to the accepted standards for quality control that pharmaceutical companies must abide by.

In its letter, the FDA gave GSK 15 working days in which to fix bacterial contamination problems identified during a regularly scheduled inspection of the facility in early April. It linked the problem to the plant’s water purification system.

The FDA letter said that since 2011, the company has repeatedly discarded batches of vaccine because of bacterial counts that registered above specified limits. It noted that 21 per cent of the plant’s production in 2014 could not be released to the market because of the problem.

READ MORE: Should flu shots be mandatory for health care workers?

Public Works and Government Services Canada, the federal department that negotiates the combined federal, provincial and territorial flu vaccine purchases, has been consulting with other manufacturers to develop backup plans in case GSK cannot meet its full order.

Three other licenced manufacturers – Sanofi Pasteur, Novartis and Astrazeneca – have contracts to provide Canada with the remaining 47 per cent of its seasonal flu vaccine purchase.

Most of that is provided by Sanofi Pasteur; Novartis and Astrazeneca supply roughly three million and one million doses respectively. Both Novartis and Astrazeneca have indicated they could provide more vaccine this fall if Canada requires it.

Health Canada said GSK has assured it the company’s plans for fixing its production problems should not affect its ability to deliver flu vaccine for the Canadian market this fall.

The department’s response seemed to suggest, however, that there might be slight delays in the company’s delivery schedule, saying GSK’s revised plan would “adhere as closely as possible” to the original plan. The company is supposed to ship half of its order by Sept. 15 and the remainder between Sept. 22 and the end of October.

© 2014 The Canadian Press

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