Flu shot shortage hits Australia as Southern Hemisphere’s influenza season begins
Unprecedented demand for flu shots in Australia forced health authorities to ration the vaccines late last month amid a national influenza vaccine shortage. Australia’s National Immunisation Program planned to provide a record number of doses this year – nearly 10 million – but a 30 percent increase in demand ahead of flu season has led to a scarcity of influenza vaccines across the country.
Flu season is just beginning in the Southern Hemisphere and is anticipated to peak in August or September.
Greater awareness of the dangers of flu following last year’s severe flu season prompted the increased demand for flu shots, according to Australian health officials. The 2017 flu season in Australia saw the highest levels of influenza activity since the 2009 “swine flu” pandemic. More than 2.5 times more cases of laboratory-confirmed influenza were reported in 2017 than in 2016, leading to 745 deaths caused by flu-related illness – a notably higher number of deaths than the 176 annual fatalities averaged over the previous five years.
Vaccination is the best protection against the flu. Getting a flu shot not only reduces the risk of falling ill, but also helps interrupt influenza transmission, protecting individuals with compromised immune systems and babies too young to receive the flu shot.
Australian officials have secured 800,000 additional influenza vaccine doses, in response to the unprecedented demand for the flu shot this year. The additional vaccines are anticipated to arrive by mid-June.
Health officials are hopeful that this year’s vaccines will provide broad protection, but current vaccine manufacturing methods and the ever-changing nature of the influenza virus make it difficult to ensure highly effective flu vaccines. Last year, despite the fact that researchers accurately predicted the Australian flu season’s dominant strain, influenza A(H3N2), and targeted that strain with the vaccines, preliminary data found that overall vaccine effectiveness was 33 percent. Researchers in the United States had similar results, with the United States’ 2017-2018 flu vaccines demonstrating 36 percent effectiveness, which falls only slightly below the average of 40 to 60 percent.
Influenza season an annual epidemic affecting millions of people around the world. There is a clear and urgent need to do better.
Next-generation influenza vaccines that offer broad, long-lasting protection are the Holy Grail of influenza research. Known as universal flu vaccines, these vaccines would protect against not only seasonal strains, such as the A(H3N2) strain that dominated the 2017 flu season, but also pandemic strains, which emerge less frequently but can have a devastating global impact. A pandemic strain of influenza caused the 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic, for example, which infected a fifth of the world’s population and killed between 50 and 100 million people. One hundred years on, the world is more vulnerable than ever the next influenza pandemic.
Scientists around the world are working to overcome these vulnerabilities by conducting promising research for a universal flu vaccine. In the United States, the National Institutes of Health has developed a roadmap to guide research that will fill in many of the lingering gaps in the scientific understanding of influenza. Recent technological advances have enabled faster and greater vaccine production. Some companies have begun using improved, cell-based technology to produce flu vaccines. Today, dozens of universal flu vaccine candidates are in the R&D pipeline.
In addition to these efforts, more innovative approaches are needed to end the threat of flu. To encourage fresh thinking, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Page family recently announced a new $12 million Grand Challenge to identify novel, transformative concepts that will lead to development of universal influenza vaccines.
Alongside the Grand Challenge, Sabin launched a multi-year initiative to accelerate the development of a universal flu vaccine. Sabin’s role is as an innovation broker — building bridges, creating networks and inviting disruptive thinkers to explore new angles that complement, and challenge, traditional biomedical research in order to spur the next breakthrough. By fostering innovative approaches, Sabin aims to help speed the development of next-generation influenza vaccines that will one day make flu history.
Luckily for Australians, the vaccine shortage will likely be over soon, with more vaccines anticipated to arrive in the coming weeks. The global need for improved flu vaccines, however, remains. After all, all the seasonal flu shots in the world won’t defend against the next influenza pandemic. Developing a universal flu vaccine is the best shot at protection.