By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON, Nov 3 (Reuters) - The White House denied on Tuesday that any H1N1 flu vaccine is now going to terrorism suspects held at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, heading off controversy over swine flu prevention priorities.
“There is no vaccine in Guantanamo and there’s no vaccine on the way to Guantanamo,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said at his daily briefing, although a Pentagon spokesman said detainees at the base could receive it late this month.
After Gibbs’ comment, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said detainees at Guantanamo would receive the vaccine only after active duty troops, deployed U.S. contractors and civilians and civilians working for the Department of Defense.
Americans have been lining up for the vaccine to protect against the H1N1 swine flu virus, which has killed at least 1,000 Americans and infected an estimated 5 million.
Given a shortage of the vaccine, clinics have restricted its distribution to those in high-risk groups, but even many of those have been unable to receive it.
A Department of Defense spokesman had said the vaccine would be offered to about 200 Guantanamo detainees, prompting criticism from some conservative politicians and commentators.
“Gitmo doesn’t have any vaccine and is not expected to receive any vaccine for some time, probably late November at the earliest,” Whitman said.
“Because there are limitations on supplies of H1N1 vaccine, we’ve established priorities... But we do have an obligation to provide appropriate medical care to everyone in our custody.”
Whitman said receiving H1N1 vaccine is voluntary for detainees, in other words, many may opt not to receive the vaccine.
The United States has ordered up to 250 million doses of H1N1 vaccine from five companies — MedImmune, a unit of AstraZeneca (AZN.L), Sanofi-Aventis (SASY.PA), Australia’s CSL (CSL.AX), GlaxoSmithKline (GSK.L) and Novartis NOVN.VX. (Additional reporting by Adam Entous; editing by Jackie Frank)