Efforts to extend influenza vaccination charges to stop “colliding epidemics” are being hampered by a restricted provide, as producers wrestle to satisfy demand.
Germany has ordered 26m flu vaccines forward of the European winter, with well being minister Jens Spahn saying the nation had “by no means had so many”. The UK authorities mentioned it aimed to vaccinate 30m individuals this yr, greater than double the 2019 determine.
Nevertheless, producers say they’ve been unable to satisfy the elevated demand at such brief discover. Seqirus, one of many high three flu jab producers globally, together with Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline, estimated that international manufacturing had solely elevated by 1-2 per cent.
“If we get an overlap of Sars-Cov-2 [the virus responsible for Covid-19] and influenza, that may very well be a catastrophe,” mentioned Rebecca Jane Cox, professor of medical virology at College of Bergen. “The query shall be how onerous the northern hemisphere goes to be hit by the flu now.”
Cheryl Cohen, affiliate professor in epidemiology at Witwatersrand College in South Africa, mentioned: “The spectre of colliding epidemics is a priority. Ought to the 2 epidemics be overlaid, that will clearly be actually worrying.”
The World Well being Group has warned of the difficulties confronted by some nations in acquiring flu vaccines as provides are snapped up. “Whoever has additional flu vaccine tell us,” Ann Moen, the group’s head of influenza preparedness and response, mentioned at a convention final month.
The 1.5m doses that Turkey expects to obtain this yr shall be inadequate, in response to the nation’s pharmacists affiliation. “With Covid-19 we predict there’s a necessity for 3 to 4 occasions that,” mentioned Erdogan Colak, the group’s president. This declare is refuted by Turkey’s authorities.
Issues concerning the two respiratory diseases compounding each other — and the impression on well being methods — has led governments to behave quick to start strict flu inoculation programmes rather than what had been beforehand voluntary and unenforced campaigns.
John McCauley, director of the worldwide influenza centre on the Crick Institute in London, mentioned it “can be remiss” if governments didn’t enhance flu vaccinations this yr. Flu vaccine had prevented 15-52 per cent of UK instances over the previous 5 years, in response to Oxford college analysis. The big selection is as a result of in some years the vaccine is much less effectively matched to the circulating strains, which continuously mutate.
As much as 650,000 individuals die from influenza every year globally, in response to the WHO, in contrast with greater than 1m from Covid-19 to this point this yr.
Final yr, earlier than coronavirus boosted demand for flu vaccines, Seqirus estimated that 650m vaccine doses can be purchased by governments and well being our bodies in 2020, costing $5bn.
After the Australian authorities referred to as on extra of its inhabitants to get the flu jab, imports of vaccinations jumped to a file excessive of 18m doses, up from a mean of 8m doses from 2012-2017.
However as demand surges, provide has solely elevated marginally. “Producers can prolong their marketing campaign up to a degree, however at that brief discover there’s a restrict to what we are able to do,” mentioned Beverly Taylor, head of influenza scientific affairs at Seqirus. Corporations would usually want 12-18 months’ discover for any large-scale manufacturing scale-up.
“Some governments have provided issues earlier than there was ample provide. They need to have checked first,” she added.
GSK mentioned it was “taking a look at all alternatives to provide and distribute extra flu vaccine doses for 2020 and the approaching years, however expects demand to proceed to outpace manufacturing capability”. It mentioned it was “very tough to shortly regulate manufacturing capability to match modifications in demand”.
Consultants additionally famous that ranges of influenza have been exceptionally low to this point this yr within the southern hemisphere — which usually experiences a peak from June to August. The identical pattern had been noticed in different severe respiratory ailments, equivalent to pneumococcal, rotavirus and respiratory syncytial virus.
Prof Cohen attributed this “unprecedented discount” in flu instances to measures adopted to comprise coronavirus, together with the usage of masks, handwashing and limits on mass gatherings. And for diseases equivalent to flu and RSV, for which kids are chargeable for many of the spreading, college closures are thought to have performed a major position.
“It does make you wonder if masks and social distancing might assist sooner or later,” famous Mr McCauley.
The relative absence of flu has thrown up just a few challenges, nevertheless. For one, scientists equivalent to Mr McCauley spend months every year analysing new influenza strains to tailor vaccine manufacturing for the next yr. With out a lot influenza in circulation, it’s tough to know if new mutations shall be picked up, that means vaccines from 2021 may very well be much less efficient.
And a few see the shortage of flu to this point this yr as an ominous signal of what is perhaps to return. “May a scarcity of immunity this yr enhance the dimensions of the epidemic subsequent?” Prof Cohen requested.
Flu specialists agreed that the precedence was to extend manufacturing and make sure that the general public really takes the vaccines already procured. In Germany for instance, as much as 8m unused flu vaccine doses are destroyed every year.
Extra reporting by Man Chazan in Berlin and Laura Pitel in Ankara