Demand for flu vaccine soars as countries plan for second Covid-19 wave

Ian Sample Science editor
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: David Cheskin/PA</span>
Photograph: David Cheskin/PA

Fears of a second wave of coronavirus have sparked a global scramble for influenza shots from countries that hope to vaccinate great swathes of the population to reduce pressure on their health services.

Health officials in the UK are considering whether to offer flu shots to everyone as part of planning for a resurgence of coronavirus in the autumn, but with other countries hitting on the same strategy, demand for flu vaccines has soared.

Mass immunisation would aim to slash the number of people hospitalised with the flu this winter, giving the NHS a better chance of coping with any surge in Covid-19 patients that follows the easing of lockdown restrictions. The flu vaccine does not protect against coronavirus infection.

One flu vaccine manufacturer, Sanofi, said it had been approached by the UK and other countries about boosting their orders of flu shots for winter 2020-21 but warned that it would struggle to ramp up production in time.

“We have been asked by countries across the northern hemisphere, including the UK, about the possibility to provide additional flu vaccine,” a Sanofi spokesperson said. “We are actively seeing what more can be done to meet additional demand, but it will be a challenge.”

“Vaccine production has very long lead times and our schedules for this flu season were in place before covid. Sanofi will produce more flu vaccines this year than ever before, a 20% increase over the last two years, but global demand will outpace supply,” the spokesperson added. “All these additional requests that have come in context of covid are beyond our anticipated and planned supply.”

The government’s Sage committee of scientific experts raised the idea of flu shots for the entire population in April, but the Department of Health and Social Care said a decision had yet to be made. In the UK, the vaccine is already offered to those most at risk, including the over-65s, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems. Flu shots are also made available for primary schoolchildren and health and social care workers.

Speaking in a personal capacity, Prof Peter Openshaw at Imperial College, London, who sits on the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), which feeds into Sage, said: “There is a concern that adding together a bad flu season with a coronavirus resurgence would be a huge burden on the NHS and given that we do have a way of reducing the impact of flu with vaccination, it is something to be considered.”

“There would obviously be an additional cost but it could potentially reduce flu circulation by taking people out of the transmission pattern who aren’t going to suffer terribly themselves, but who might pass it on to other people,” he added. To make flu jabs available to the whole population, the UK would need 30-40% more shots than usual, he said.

Alastair Buxton, director of NHS Services at the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, said some countries, such as Australia, had already witnessed higher demand for flu vaccines from people who wanted to protect themselves, adding that this flu season was going to bring “a very new set of challenges”.

Healthcare professionals will face the challenge of needing to find ways to vaccinate people safely in a socially distanced environment,” he said. “If there is a significant increase in demand for vaccination from eligible patients, we expect there will be pressure on vaccine supplies, and we are also concerned about whether there will be adequate supplies of the PPE that health professionals will need when administering vaccines.

“Community pharmacy is already planning for the upcoming flu season, working closely with the NHS, so that priority groups for vaccination can get one. The complexity of the global supply chain for flu vaccines means manufacturers cannot increase supply at short notice and increased demand across the world will increase pressure on availability, but community pharmacists will work with GP colleagues to do all that they can to get their local communities vaccinated,” he added.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The flu vaccination programme will be a crucial part of preparing the UK for winter and jabs are already freely available to those most at risk, including people over 65, pregnant women, carers and primary school children. We plan for the flu season well in advance and further details will be published soon.”