By Caroline Humer and Julie Steenhuysen
NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. 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 Corp, one of the largest U.S. 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 Corp has ordered 40 percent more vaccine doses to meet the expected demand. Walmart Inc 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 Ltd’s Seqirus said demand from customers has increased by 10 percent. British-based GlaxoSmithKline said it is ready to increase manufacturing as needed.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll of 4,428 adults conducted May 13-19 found that about 60 percent of U.S. adults plan to get the flu vaccine in the fall. Typically fewer than half of Americans get vaccinated. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the vaccine for everyone over age 6 months.
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-barreled assault this fall and winter with flu and COVID. Flu is the one you can do something about,“ Vanderbilt University Medical Center infectious disease expert Dr. William Schaffner said.
Drugmakers last year produced nearly 170 million doses of influenza vaccine, according to the CDC. There were up to 740,000 hospitalizations 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 $40, putting the U.S. market at up to $6.8 billion. The CDC secures some doses at a discount price in its child vaccination program.
Global revenue for influenza vaccines is about $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 $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 Center for Immunization 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,” 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 hospitalizations every year, according to experts.
“Even if it protects 35 to 40 percent of the population, it’s a lot better than zero,” University of Minnesota influenza expert Dr. 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 percent to 65 percent. They also said they would increasingly go to pharmacies and less often to a doctor’s office or healthcare centers.
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 percent this year.
Rite Aid said social distancing policies may cut into workplace flu clinics but that it may offer voucher programs to employers and is considering setting up drive-through clinics. In Australia, where the winter flu season is underway, such sites are already in use.
Some U.S. doctors are also considering clinics in parks and community centers and even home visits for vulnerable patients, said David Ross, vice president of commercial operations for North America at Seqirus.
“As we look at immunization this coming fall, it will play an enormous role in this battle against COVID-19,” Ross said.
(Reporting by Caroline Humer in New York and Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago; Additional reporting by Grant Smith in New York; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Will Dunham)