By Alicja Ptak, Emilio Parodi and Francois Murphy
WARSAW/MILAN/VIENNA (Reuters) – A surge in demand for vaccines to ward off the winter flu has led to shortages in some European cities, raising the risk of a potentially lethal “twindemic” as COVID-19 cases spike.
Many governments boosted vaccine orders this year and launched campaigns to encourage citizens to get shots.
The aim was to inoculate earlier than usual and cover a bigger portion of the continent’s 450 million population to reduce the burden on health services.
Top manufacturers such as GlaxoSmithKline
and Seqirus have boosted supplies to the region by an average of 30% in anticipation of higher demand. But they are operating at full capacity and cannot meet all the late extra demand, Vaccines Europe, which represents the producers, said in a statement on Wednesday.
Interviews with at least 10 city and government officials, as well as medical experts, also show systems in major cities such as Warsaw are struggling with the strong early demand, causing delays and temporary shortages.
“This year, patients come all the time and ask about vaccines, more than 10 people every day,” said Grazyna Lenkowska-Mielniczuk, manager at Apteka Non Stop pharmacy in Warsaw’s Wola district.
“The wholesalers tell us the same thing as we tell patients: that there are no vaccines and we have to wait.”
Europe’s flu season begins in October and infections typically pick up between mid-November and the start of December, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
Seasonal flu viruses cause between 4 and 50 million infections each year and up to 70,000 Europeans die each year of causes linked to flu, particularly among older adults and at-risk groups.
Precautionary measures to curb COVID-19 transmission such as social distancing, mask wearing and hand washing may help curb infections this season.
There was “very limited” flu transmission in the southern hemisphere this year for that reason, Sylvie Briand, director of Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness at the World Health Organization said in a briefing last week.
Even so, surging coronavirus infections across the continent prompted EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides to warn last month of the risk of a “twindemic of COVID-19 and the flu”.
Medical experts are urging more people get inoculated to prevent a deeper crisis.
“There is a need to prevent a double wave of influenza plus COVID-19,” said Clemens Wendtner, chief physician of infectiology and tropical medicine at the Munich Schwabing Clinic, who recommends people younger than 60 get the jab this year.
Poland’s Ministry of Health said it bought 3 million doses this year and will buy more if needed – as of Tuesday it had received 1.6 million shots.
But Mylan’s Influvac Tetra and Sanofi’s Vaxigrip Tetra vaccines are available in only 1% of pharmacies in Poland, according to gdziepolek.pl, a Polish website that helps patients find the nearest pharmacy with a drug they are seeking.
GSK’s Fluarix Tetra is not available and AstraZeneca’s
Fluenz Tetra is available