As America’s biopharmaceutical companies work around the clock to combat COVID-19, another virus with deadly consequences is right around the corner. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to more than 7.5 million infections and tragically more than 210,000 deaths. The influenza virus, more commonly known as the flu, is starting to circulate in the U.S. This year, already-strained health systems across the U.S. are preparing for a double whammy: flu season compounded by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
During the 2019-2020 flu season (October-April), nearly 40 million Americans came down with the flu, leading to an estimated 400,000 hospitalizations and 26,000 deaths including children. These figures demonstrate what a staggering impact the flu can have and why it is important to talk to your health care professional about getting vaccinated.
Both flu and the COVID-19 viruses can cause respiratory illness and initially can present with similar symptoms, such as fever, cough and shortness of breath. However, COVID-19 has been shown to have an entire spectrum of symptoms and multi-system involvement beyond those symptoms. The illnesses can be hard to distinguish without adequate testing, and the confluence of both viruses hitting hard at the same time could further test our health care system’s resiliency.
Because of the severity of COVID-19, it is vital that we do our part to prevent the spread of the virus; that will help manage health care resources going in to the fall and winter. Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted, "We're going to have COVID in the fall, and we're going to have flu in the fall, and either one of those by themselves can stress certain hospital systems...So, by getting that flu vaccine, you may be able to negate the necessity to have to take up a hospital bed, and then that hospital bed can be more available for those that get hospitalized with COVID."
Fortunately, annual flu vaccines are a critical tool to help prevent or diminish the impact of the virus and keep patients safe, in addition to the mitigation measures in place to protect against COVID-19. Masks, hand washing and social distancing will also reduce the risk of contracting influenza. America’s biopharmaceutical companies play a leading role in preventing and reducing the impact of influenza by developing and manufacturing hundreds of millions of doses of the flu vaccine every year.
Let’s take a closer look at the importance of the flu vaccine.
A Coordinated Effort to Target the Flu
The flu is caused by a number of circulating influenza virus strains that evolve frequently such that, annual vaccines are produced every year through a highly coordinated global effort. More than 100 teams across the globe conduct year-round surveillance to determine which viruses are most likely to spread and twice a year the World Health Organization (WHO) gathers international representatives, including individuals from the CDC Influenza Division, to make a recommendation for the specific flu viruses that should be addressed in the annual vaccines. In the United States, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), a part of the CDC, considers these recommendations and makes the final decision as to which targets should be the focus for U.S. vaccines for the upcoming flu season.
Biopharmaceutical companies then use the ACIP recommendation to research, develop and manufacture annual flu vaccines that protect against the strains of influenza that are most expected to circulate that year. The resulting so-called multivalent vaccines can prevent millions of illnesses from multiple influenza strains and cut down on flu-related doctor’s visits and hospitalizations each year. In fact, during the 2018-2019 season, flu vaccines prevented an estimated 4.4 million illnesses, 2.3 million flu-associated medical visits, 58,000 flu-associated hospitalizations and 3,500 influenza-associated deaths. However, with higher vaccination rates, we could do much better. In the 2019-2020 season, sadly only 21% of children eligible for vaccination were fully vaccinated against flu, a percentage similar to past seasons.
During seasons when global surveillance successfully matches the vaccine targets to the circulating viruses, flu vaccines have been shown to reduce the risk of having to go to the doctor with flu by 40 to 60%. Even in cases where vaccinated people still come down with the flu, the vaccines have been shown in several studies to reduce the severity of illness.
Strong U.S. Safety Standards
Like all vaccines, annual flu vaccines undergo a rigorous research and development process in order to meet FDA’s safety and efficacy requirements for approval. Even after approval, the FDA’s involvement is a year-round process for flu vaccines.
The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months and older be vaccinated against the flu before the season begins each year. After 2020-2021 guidance from the ACIP, a total of four individual vaccine options this season from multiple manufacturers will be available for administration. This year, more than ever, it’s important to speak with your health care provider about the flu vaccine. Flu vaccines are available from a variety of sources, often at no-cost to the individual.
For more information about the flu, visit https://www.cdc.gov/flu/prevent/vaccinations.htm .
Richard Moscicki, M.D. Dr. Moscicki serves as executive vice president, Science and Regulatory Advocacy and chief medical officer at PhRMA. He joined the organization in 2017 after serving as the Deputy Center Director for Science Operations for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) since 2013. While at FDA, Dr. Moscicki brought executive direction of Center operations and leadership in overseeing the development, implementation, and direction of CDER’s programs. Previous positions include serving as Chief Medical Officer at Genzyme Corporation from 1992 to 2011, where he was responsible for worldwide global regulatory and pharmacovigilance matters, as well as all aspects of clinical research and medical affairs for the company. He served as the senior vice president and head of Clinical Development at Sanofi-Genzyme from 2011-2013.