Flu shot makers gear up—and get creative—for a critical vaccination season

With the novel coronavirus continuing its global spread and a second wave threatening the United States later this year, experts worry an influx of influenza patients and COVID-19 patients will hit U.S. hospitals at the same time.

All the more reason to push flu shots—and pharma's working to ramp up not only for the increased demand but also for the logistical challenges of vaccinating millions of people during a pandemic.

Manufacturers distributed about 170 million flu vaccine doses to the U.S. last year. This year, they're aiming to increase that by about 20 million, Elaine O’Hara, Sanofi Pasteur’s North America head of commercial operations, told FiercePharma. Vaccine makers are already producing their doses, with plans to start shipping later this summer.

Later this year, companies, health officials and patient advocates plan to encourage flu vaccination to serve two public health goals—to reduce the risk of simultaneous infections or consecutive infections, and to reduce the burden on healthcare systems, said Seqirus' David Ross, VP of commercial operations in North America.

“Flu immunization is not a distraction from the COVID battle,” Ross said. “It’s a primary tool in this battle."

COVID-19 is a “very fast and very elusive” pathogen that could devastate healthcare systems when combined with a medium or worse flu season, O’Hara said. CDC director Robert Redfield has been raising alarms over a combination of flu and coronavirus outbreaks this fall and winter, and again reminded a House of Representatives committee about the threat last week.

“In the name of public health, it is so important for people to get vaccinated this year," O'Hara said.

Sanofi is getting ready to ship up to 80 million flu vaccine doses this year, she said—an increase from 70 million last year. Seqirus shipped 52 million doses last year, and it's planning to increase that number by about 10% for the coming season, Ross said. 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.

Challenges to vaccination

But even as flu vaccines carry increased importance this year, getting them to people—and increasing the number of overall vaccinations—will be tougher because of social distancing measures, experts said.

O'Hara said she fears a “perfect storm” of a new wave of COVID-19 spooking people into isolation again—even when that includes avoiding a flu shot. Sanofi is working with health systems, doctors and others to provide “best practices” for administering vaccines during the pandemic. Those could include curbside or parking lot immunizations, one-way traffic in clinics, and more, she said.

There are encouraging signs from Australia, Ross said. The country, which is in the midst of its vaccination effort, is seeing higher rates of immunization amid the pandemic thanks to "creative solutions."

What changes can Americans expect changes to routine flu vaccinations this year? They could include clinics set up in parking lots, parks or community centers to allow for appropriate distancing between people. Plus, flu vaccinations could start earlier and go later than usual, Ross said.

Experts want to do whatever it takes to make sure flu vaccines aren't wasted, O'Hara said. During the H1N1 pandemic, many doses were eventually discarded, she said.

“We’re really trying to prevent that from happening,” she said.