Concerned about a simultaneous assault on the new coronavirus and seasonal influenza this winter, public health officials and vaccine manufacturers are making millions of additional doses of flu vaccines to protect those most vulnerable to the pandemic and influenza, according to government and company officials.
Although the flu season doesn’t start until fall, major flu vaccine manufacturers say they plan to increase production by about 10 percent, to about 189 million doses, compared to 170 million doses last year. , to ensure that there are sufficient doses for an anticipated increase in people seeking flu vaccines.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have taken the rare step of buying 7 million doses directly from manufacturers to distribute to states for adult vaccination, CDC Director Robert Redfield said in an interview. “This is a great move,” he said.
That’s about 14 times the 500,000 doses the agency typically buys for adults. Adult doses are included in the industry’s total planned production.
Getting a flu shot doesn’t protect against the coronavirus, but disease experts said reducing flu episodes could be critical to freeing up space in hospitals and doctors’ offices to treat covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
In contrast to the rhetoric of President Donald Trump and other White House officials who downplay the threat of a pandemic this fall, flu preparations raise the alarm among public health officials, doctors, advocacy groups and industry executives on the additional threat of coronavirus. The unprecedented convergence of two highly contagious respiratory viruses could occur in the winter, with each pathogen causing fatal illness and death.
Health officials are especially concerned with people at increased risk for coronavirus and influenza, including residents and employees in long-term care facilities, African Americans, Hispanics, and people with underlying medical conditions.
Typically, less than half of Americans get a flu shot each season. Vaccination rates for blacks and Hispanics have traditionally been lower. Just over a third of black and Hispanic adults get vaccinated, according to CDC data. The CDC recommends the vaccine for all people older than 6 months.
It is unclear whether the possible double whammy of the coronavirus and flu will push more Americans to get a flu shot.
Experts say almost nothing is known about the interaction between the coronavirus and the flu. It is possible for someone to be infected with the coronavirus and influenza at the same time, but experts have very little data. There is no coronavirus vaccine and only limited treatment for covid-19.
But even a moderately effective flu shot reduces the severity of flu-related illnesses and keeps people out of the hospital, authorities said.
“We want to get the flu off the table, in every possible way, to make the flu not a factor,” said LJ Tan, director of strategy for the Immunization Action Coalition. At the advocacy group’s annual flu summit in May, manufacturers supplying vaccines revealed their plan to increase production by 10 percent for the upcoming flu season.
At a House hearing this week, lawmakers asked top health officials what the government should do to prepare for the coronavirus in the fall. Among the articles that Undersecretary of Health Brett Giroir identified was “enough flu vaccine to vaccinate everyone this winter.”
He added: “That is one less virus that could kill 20, 30, 50,000, 70,000 [people] and potentially even be a covid coinfection. “
CDC’s purchase of additional doses for adults “is certainly unprecedented in recent memory,” said Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, in an interview.
The CDC spent $ 100 million to buy the adult doses, authorities said.
Administration officials rejected an initial request by the CDC to spend $ 700 million to purchase 50 million adult doses, according to federal health officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the policy deliberations.
Some immunization advocates are pressing the government to take advantage of pandemic-related emergency funds to buy additional adult doses.
A small fraction of that money could be used to “increase dosage levels to anticipate what we believe will be demand this fall,” said former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who heads the newly formed Coalition to stop the flu. The group includes immunization advocates, state and local health organizations, the American Heart Association, and vaccine manufacturers.
If the United States government gets additional funds by mid-July, flu makers in the coalition said they could fulfill additional requests later in the flu season, Daschle said.
Influenza viruses change from year to year, so vaccines must be updated annually. But tight production lead times mean manufacturers need to know in weeks how many total doses they need to produce.
Officials at Sanofi Pasteur and Seqirus, which have pledged to produce 75 million and 55 million doses, respectively, said they have received an increase in pre-orders from customers, including retailers and healthcare systems.
“This is a flu season like we’ve never seen before,” said David Ross, vice president of business operations for North America at Seqirus. The company has already adjusted manufacturing capacity to address the increased demand, he said.
“We will continue to explore opportunities to make more vaccines if demand requires it,” Ross said.
The effectiveness of the flu vaccine varies by season. Officials select the flu strains the vaccine will target months before the flu season, which means the vaccine isn’t always a good match for strains that end up circulating. When the vaccine is similar to circulating flu viruses, vaccines have been shown to reduce the risk of going to the doctor by 40 to 60 percent. The overall effectiveness of last year’s vaccine was 39 percent, according to CDC data released Wednesday.
Health officials also face another big challenge this fall: making sure people can be vaccinated safely, without being exposed to the coronavirus. The CDC has awarded $ 140 million to immunization programs in the United States to boost flu vaccination in adults. The agency is working with state health departments, pharmacies, and other health care providers to develop sidewalk and driving flu clinics and other alternatives for people to get vaccinated.
The CDC has also developed a new test that can simultaneously detect the new coronavirus and influenza virus, and is seeking emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.
Spreading the right public health message will also be critical. Older adults, blacks and Hispanics are among the groups that need to be prioritized for flu vaccination, said Michael Greenberg, chief of medical operations for Sanofi Pasteur in North America.
But if there are orders to stay home due to the pandemic, these are the same people who are told to avoid leaving their homes.
“It is a very delicate communication,” Greenberg said. “You need to instill confidence and at the same time emphasize the need to get vaccinated.”