Efforts to extend influenza vaccination charges to stop “colliding epidemics” are being hampered by a restricted provide, as producers battle to fulfill 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 12 months, greater than double the 2019 determine.
Nevertheless, producers say they’ve been unable to fulfill the elevated demand at such quick discover. Seqirus, one of many prime three flu jab producers globally, together with Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline, estimated that world 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 might be a catastrophe,” mentioned Rebecca Jane Cox, professor of medical virology at College of Bergen. “The query might 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 international locations in acquiring flu vaccines as provides are snapped up. “Whoever has further 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 12 months might 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.
Considerations concerning the two respiratory sicknesses compounding each other — and the impression on well being programs — has led governments to behave quick to start strict flu inoculation programmes instead of 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 12 months. 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 nicely matched to the circulating strains, which continually 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 12 months.
Final 12 months, 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 known as on extra of its inhabitants to get the flu jab, imports of vaccinations jumped to a document 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 lengthen their marketing campaign up to some extent, however at that quick discover there’s a restrict to what we are able to do,” mentioned Beverly Taylor, head of influenza scientific affairs at Seqirus. Firms would usually want 12-18 months’ discover for any large-scale manufacturing scale-up.
“Some governments have supplied issues earlier than there was ample provide. They need to have checked first,” she added.
GSK mentioned it was “ 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 troublesome to rapidly modify manufacturing capability to match modifications in demand”.
Specialists additionally famous that ranges of influenza have been exceptionally low to this point this 12 months within the southern hemisphere — which usually experiences a peak from June to August. The identical development had been noticed in different critical respiratory illnesses, similar to pneumococcal, rotavirus and respiratory syncytial virus.
Prof Cohen attributed this “unprecedented discount” in flu instances to measures adopted to comprise coronavirus, together with using masks, handwashing and limits on mass gatherings. And for sicknesses similar to flu and RSV, for which youngsters are liable 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 may assist sooner or later,” famous Mr McCauley.
The relative absence of flu has thrown up just a few challenges, nonetheless. For one, scientists similar to Mr McCauley spend months every year analysing new influenza strains to tailor vaccine manufacturing for the next 12 months. With out a lot influenza in circulation, it’s troublesome to know if new mutations might be picked up, that means vaccines from 2021 might be much less efficient.
And a few see the dearth of flu to this point this 12 months as an ominous signal of what is likely to be to come back. “Might a scarcity of immunity this 12 months enhance the size of the epidemic subsequent?” Prof Cohen requested.
Flu consultants agreed that the precedence was to extend manufacturing and be 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.
Further reporting by Man Chazan in Berlin and Laura Pitel in Ankara