Merck, Pfizer pneumonia vaccines running low in EU as researchers fight COVID-19

Syringe injection vaccine needle
Merck tied an "unprecedent surge in demand" for Pneumovax to running shortages in the EU. (Pixabay)

As COVID-19 continues to rage worldwide, health authorities worry that a perfect storm of the novel coronavirus, pneumonia and seasonal flu could overtake hospital systems. Now, two major pneumococcal vaccines are already seeing shortages in the EU, which could be an ill omen for the coming months.

Merck & Co.'s Pneumovax 23 and Pfizer's Prevnar 13 are facing shortages in Europe as researchers try both pneumococcal vaccines as a preventative measure against COVID-19, Reuters reported

Despite supply running normally in the U.S., a swath of European countries have been forced to ration both vaccines as the cold winter months approach and hospital systems fear a double-wave of COVID-19 and pneumonia patients. That "unprecedented surge in demand," according to a Merck spokeswoman, has put both drugmakers in a major supply pinch.

"Despite our best efforts, global demand continues to exceed available supply in some markets," the spokeswoman said in an email. "We are continuing to assess the situation closely and are working to make as much supply available as possible to countries around the world."

With spot shortages mounting, Pfizer assured it has a "healthy supply of available global inventory" for Prevnar and "has further ramped up production to ensure there are no systemic issues," a Pfizer spokeswoman said in an email.

In Italy, supplies of both vaccines are so scarce a source told Reuters they are "practically impossible to find." The country has authorized a temporary plan for pharmacies to buy the vaccines abroad in the meantime. 

Meanwhile, Germany raised the minimum age for elderly vaccine use from 60 to 70 in a move to limit demand. The nation reached a deal to divert batches of Pneumovax from Japan and said it may not see prefilled syringes of the vaccine until January. 

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A scarcity of pneumonia vaccines in the EU comes as health authorities around the globe fear a potent mix of COVID-19, pneumonia and the seasonal flu could quickly overwhelm hospital systems.

In the U.S., where a third surge of COVID-19 infections continues to build, flu vaccine manufacturers have planned to distribute 20 million doses—a big increase from 17 million in 2019, Elaine O’Hara, Sanofi Pasteur’s North America head of commercial operations, said in June. 

Sanofi will ship up to 80 million flu vaccine doses this year, O'Hara said—an increase from 70 million last year. Seqirus shipped 52 million doses last year, and it's increased that number by more than 20% for the current season. GlaxoSmithKline, the third major flu vaccine player, shipped 46 million doses last year and is planning to ship 50 million this year, a spokesman said in June.

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