Pharmaceutical manufacturers may not be able to meet all the increased demand for flu vaccines this year, during an unprecedented demand for the vaccine worldwide.

Countries around the world have increased orders of flu vaccines, in fear that a second wave of Covid-19 and widespread flu in co-circulation could overburden health services this winter. Wider vaccination could reduce the level of flu in winter and protect hospital resources and staff time, allowing more efforts to be put towards tackling a possible second wave of the pandemic.  

One of the largest flu vaccine manufacturers, Sanofi – which supplies vaccines to the UK - told the Pharmacist that in recent weeks it has ‘observed an unprecedented increase in influenza vaccine demand, worldwide’.

‘In the full year of 2020, Sanofi Pasteur is planning to produce and distribute more influenza vaccine doses than ever, reflecting a 20% increase over the past 2 years,’ said a spokesperson.

‘We are currently maximising the number of vaccine doses that we can make available, facing the exceptional increase in demand’, they said.

However, the manufacturer acknowledged that it ‘may not be in a position to meet all additional demands’ for the vaccine.

Seqirus, another pharmaceutical company who supplies flu vaccines to the UK, is also experiencing a ‘very high demand for the influenza vaccines across the market,’ Helen Concilia, UK Country Head of Seqirus, told the Pharmacist.

‘[Seqirus] is increasing manufacturing to the extent possible at this stage in the production cycle,’ she commented.

A spokesperson for GlaxoSmithKline added that it expect demand to ‘outpace manufacturing supply’.

They said: ‘Due to increased demand, GSK is looking at all opportunities to produce and distribute more flu vaccine doses for 2020 and the coming years, but we expect demand to continue to outpace manufacturing capacity. 

‘Due to long production times and short shelf-life, it is very difficult to quickly adjust manufacturing capacity to match changes in demand.’

Meanwhile, a spokesperson from AstraZeneca, a pharmaceutical company that supplies the NHS with childhood flu vaccines, said that the manufacturer has started to increase its influenza vaccine ‘to support the anticipated global public health focus on improving vaccination rates and preventing influenza disease’.

At a media briefing held last week on Covid-19, WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that despite the continual circulation of the pandemic, 'we must ensure that influenza remains a top priority'.

Not only because 'influenza affects every country every year, and takes its own deadly toll', but also because 'co-circulation of Covid-19 and influenza can worsen the impact on health care systems that are already overwhelmed'.

The government’s scientific panel SAGE advised the UK government in April on vaccinating the ‘entire population’ against the flu during the 2020/21 winter season.

The Department of Health has not confirmed a widespread flu immunisation programme. However, last month it sent a letter to community pharmacies and general practices in England to say the government considerations for expanding the eligibility criteria for NHS-funded flu vaccinations were ‘underway’.

It also said that it is ‘more important than ever’ that community pharmacies make sure they have sufficient stocks of the recommended adult flu vaccine.

PSNC Director of NHS Services, Alastair Buxton said the pharmacy sector is 'expecting to see increased demand for vaccinations in the UK.'

'Community pharmacy is already planning for the upcoming flu season, working closely with the NHS, so that priority groups for vaccination, can get one.

On the topic of potential supply issues, the director said: 'The complexity of the global supply chain for flu vaccine means manufacturers cannot increase supply at short notice and increased demand across the world will increase pressure on availability, but community pharmacists will do all they can to help get their local communities vaccinated.'

As it stands, those who qualify for the NHS-funded flu vaccine include all children between 2-10 years old, those in clinically at risk groups between the ages of 6 months and 65, pregnant women, people living in care homes, and all health and social care staff.

Pharmacists in New Zealand, who are already in their winter season – perhaps providing a glimpse of what's to come for the UK - have noted an upsurge in demand for flu vaccination. ‘We’ve been administering three times the number of flu vaccines we usually give out; the demand is so high,’ said Ian McMichael, president of the Pharmaceutical Society of New Zealand (PSNZ).

A nationwide campaign in the country has been run to encourage as many people as possible to get vaccinated against seasonal flu. The high demand for the vaccine had been causing some supply issues, Mr McMichael told the Pharmacist in May.