Sanofi hesitance, domestic scandal and company drama cut flu vaccine supply in China

It isn’t a scene one would expect after the world battled a severe flu season. But in China, supply of flu vaccines this season has come down, thanks to reduced offering from Sanofi Pasteur, a high-profile vaccine scandal and a nasty fight for control over a Nasdaq-listed company.

The number of flu shots approved by Chinese regulators so far this season has fallen about 19% to about 15.2 million doses, according to data from August to Nov. 25 as disclosed by China’s National Institute for Food and Drug Control, which is responsible for vaccine inspection before each batch is released to the market.

Sanofi Pasteur, which was the largest contributor during the same period last year with about 5.5 million doses, significantly reduced its offering to merely 1.2 million.

Early in April, the French vaccine maker’s Chinese operation said it had noticed an efficacy decline in 15 batches of Vaxigrip. Although the company stressed the vaccines were still efficacious enough, it voluntarily recalled the batches as a precautionary measure.

“In 2017, we had to stop the distribution of specific batches of influenza vaccines in China as a precautionary measure. We returned to production in 2018 later than expected and were unable to supply as many vaccines as in previous years,” a Sanofi Pasteur spokesman said in a statement to FiercePharma. “As a leading vaccines manufacturer, we are fully committed to providing vaccines that meet the highest quality standards.” 

Sanofi is just part of China’s flu vaccine problem this season, though. Changchun Changsheng Life Sciences, the protagonist in a vaccine scandal that sparked a nationwide outcry and a humongous $1.3 billion fine, contributed about 1.4 million doses to the pool during the August-November period last year.

This year, that number is zero. Changsheng has practically gone defunct and its entire vaccine output has ceased. Ironically, the company was one of the first two companies to win Chinese approvals for quadrivalent flu vaccines just a month before its manufacturing breach surfaced in July.

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Changsheng isn’t the only major manufacturer that saw its flu vaccine supply crash to zero, either. Nasdaq-listed Sinovac Biotech, whose 2.3 million doses during the period last year constituted 12% of the nation’s supply, went silent this time for an entirely different reason.

During a power grab in April against the chairman of its Beijing subsidiary, electricity to its Shangdi, Beijing, manufacturing facility was cut off. As a result, the company had to discard all its vaccines, including materials for making seasonal flu shots. Although the company soon resumed production, it’s not expected to have flu shots on the market this year because of their long production process.

With the combined reduction in doses, the situation in China would have been disastrous if a few other players hadn’t stepped up their game. Hualan Bio, another firm with a newly approved quadrivalent flu vaccine, boosted its supply by 2.8 million doses to become the largest supplier so far this season. Fosun’s Aleph Bio and state-run Sinopharm’s Changchun subsidiary also increased their numbers.

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The flu vaccination rate in China has been languishing at just 2%, compared with 40% to 60% in different age groups in the U.S.

Unlike the U.S., where flu vaccines are covered by private insurance, China’s national insurance scheme doesn’t include them. Except for seniors and young children in a couple of megacities, including Beijing, most Chinese people have to pay out of pocket for the shots. Besides, there’s a widespread misunderstanding of the flu in China; many confuse the common cold with influenza and in general disregard the potential severity of the disease.

That perception has likely changed for many people, however, after a post went viral on social media platform WeChat last flu season. The author of the article detailed how his 60-year-old father-in-law died in less than a month after flu symptoms first emerged. But as more Chinese people rushed to clinics seeking a dose this season, they were instead told of a shortage.