Fears of coronavirus second wave prompt flu push at US pharmacies, drugmakers

Drugmakers are ramping up to meet the demand. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (REUTERS) - US pharmacy chains are preparing a big push for flu vaccinations when the season kicks off in October, hoping to curb tens of thousands of serious cases that could coincide with a second wave of coronavirus infections.

CVS Health, one of the largest US pharmacies, said it is working to ensure it has vaccine doses available for an anticipated surge in customers seeking shots to protect against seasonal influenza.

Rival chain Rite Aid has ordered 40 per cent more vaccine doses to meet the expected demand. Walmart and Walgreens Boots Alliance said they also are expecting more Americans to seek these shots.

Drugmakers are ramping up to meet the demand. Australian vaccine maker CSL's Seqirus said demand from customers has increased by 10 per cent.

British-based GlaxoSmithKline said it is ready to increase manufacturing as needed.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll of 4,428 adults conducted in May 13-19 found that about 60 per cent of US adults plan to get the flu vaccine in the fall.

Typically fewer than half of Americans get vaccinated. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the vaccine for everyone over six months of age.

Getting a flu shot does not protect against Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus for which there are no approved vaccines.

Public health officials have said vaccination against the flu will be critical to help prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with flu and Covid-19 patients.

"We're in for a double-barrelled assault this fall and winter with flu and Covid. Flu is the one you can do something about," Vanderbilt University Medical Centre infectious disease expert William Schaffner said.

Drugmakers last year produced nearly 170 million doses of influenza vaccine, according to the CDC. There were up to 740,000 hospitalisations and 62,000 deaths in the 2019-2020 flu season that ended last month, the CDC said.

While health insurance typically covers the flu shot at a doctor's office and other groups offer free flu vaccine clinics, the adult vaccine retails for about US$40 (S$57), putting the US market at up to US$6.8 billion.

The CDC secures some doses at a discount price in its child vaccination programme.

Global revenue for influenza vaccines is about US$5 billion, according to Wall Street firm Bernstein, and in the United States, each additional 1 percentage point of Americans getting the vaccine is worth US$75 million in revenues to drugmakers.


CDC director Robert Redfield has said that flu and Covid-19 combined could exact a heavier toll on Americans than the initial coronavirus outbreak that began this winter.

Some experts said creative ways must be developed to ensure that people are vaccinated against flu because patients may be less likely to see their doctors in person out of fear of getting infected with the coronavirus in medical offices.

Pharmacies, public health clinics and other flu shot providers may need to develop drive-up clinics - popular with Covid-19 diagnostic tests - for flu vaccines, said Dr Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Centre for Immunisation and Respiratory Disease.

"My goal is that every single vaccine dose that gets made gets into somebody's arm to protect them. I don't want any vaccines left on the shelves or in doctors' offices," Dr Messonnier said in an interview.

One reason for reluctance among Americans to get the flu shot is that it does not always prevent disease, in part because the flu strains selected as targets of the vaccine months ahead of time are not always a perfect match for the dominant flu strains that actually circulate in any given season.

But the shots reliably reduce hospitalisations every year, according to experts.

"Even if it protects 35 to 40 per cent of the population, it's a lot better than zero," University of Minnesota influenza expert Michael Osterholm said.

In a survey commissioned by CVS Health between January and May, consumers who said they will definitely or are likely to get a flu shot rose from 34 per cent to 65 per cent.

They also said they would increasingly go to pharmacies and less often to a doctor's office or healthcare centres.

Rite Aid Chief Pharmacy Officer Jocelyn Konrad said the pharmacy chain, which provided about 2.6 million flu shots last year, upped its order by 40 per cent this year.

Rite Aid said social distancing policies may cut into workplace flu clinics, but that it may offer voucher programmes to employers and is considering setting up drive-through clinics.

In Australia, where the winter flu season is under way, such sites are already in use.

Some US doctors are also considering clinics in parks and community centres and even home visits for vulnerable patients, said Mr David Ross, vice-president of commercial operations for North America at Seqirus.

"As we look at immunisation this coming fall, it will play an enormous role in this battle against Covid-19," Mr Ross said.

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