The government is considering legal action against international pharmaceutical company Solvay after it failed to honour an agreement to provide the country with vaccines for the influenza pandemic.
The risk of Malta facing the second wave of the swine flu pandemic without any vaccines has now been averted thanks to a deal reached with the Dutch government to buy their extra stock.
The 420,000 doses are expected to cost the island between €4 million and €5 million. The delivery date is still to be announced.
The news Solvay would not be able to provide the vaccines despite an annual €50,000 retainer to guarantee Malta's early supply arrived just weeks ago. It was yesterday described by Community Care Parliamentary Secretary Mario Galea as "a bombshell".
The problem arose after a change in Solvay's production technique was not given the green light by the European Medicines Authority.
"The authority said it needed more time to licence the vaccine," Mr Galea said, adding that the vaccines were expected to be available towards the end of 2011. But this was deemed unacceptable by the health authorities.
"I wanted it as soon as possible and not in 2011," he said, adding he had instructed lawyers to examine whether Malta could take legal action against Solvay and this year's retainer could be withdrawn.
The agreement with Solvay dates back to 2005 when then Health Minister Louis Deguara had said Malta would be among the first countries to receive the vaccine following the agreement.
Mr Galea said: "Whereas before we were at the front of the queue to get the vaccines, we ended up without any."
Earlier this month, European media reported that Malta, Bulgaria and the Baltic states were struggling to put together a sufficient stock of vaccines and health ministers agreed the EU should propose transparent mechanisms for vaccine sharing.
But in a positive turn of events, it transpired that a single dose would be enough for the majority of people, which meant many countries had extra stocks. EU Health Commissioner Androlla Vassiliou urged such member states to share limited amounts with those that did not have any.
"This was a big sigh of relief," Mr Galea said.
He said the government had the option of buying the vaccines from pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline but chose to buy them from Holland.
The issue was discussed between Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi and his Dutch counterpart, Jan Peter Balkenende, and during a press conference in Brussels yesterday Dr Gonzi said Malta had struck a deal with Holland to buy some of that country's extra stock of jabs.
Mr Galea said the government's purchase of 420,000 doses was enough for 75 per cent of the population (the younger and older age groups still require two doses).
"Experience shows not everyone wants to take it," he said, adding that a number of people would have contracted the virus by the time the vaccines were available.
Vaccinating three-quarters of the population would create herd immunity and limit the spread of the virus.
In August, the government had said Malta would not be going for an early batch of swine flu vaccines, which were being manufactured without the usual rigorous human testing that uncovers any side effects and ensures users' safety. Mr Galea yesterday denied the authorities had been trying to buy time until a solution for the vaccine shortage was found.
This summer, the World Health Organisation voiced concern about skipping mass testing and WHO flu chief Keiji Fukuda warned against the potential dangers of untested vaccines.
However, the US and other countries, including the UK, Australia, China, Canada and Japan, have already started the vaccination process. WHO then went back on its original stand and declared that this was a calculated risk as the manufacturing method had been used for many years.