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23.09.2020 Europe

France boosts flu vaccine production to avoid double epidemic with Covid

By Mike Woods - RFI
AFP PHOTO / LIONEL BONAVENTURE
LISTEN SEP 23, 2020
AFP PHOTO / LIONEL BONAVENTURE

The French government has ordered 30 percent more seasonal flu vaccine in anticipation of increased demand because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Experts hope increased participation in this year's vaccine campaign will save hospitals from having to face two epidemics at the same time.

France's health ministry said late Monday the country had ordered nearly one-third more doses of the flu vaccine than usual, in anticipation of increased demand when the annual campaign begins in mid-October.

Ministry officials said Health Minister Olivier Véran wants to avoid a situation where hospitals, care homes for the elderly and other health facilities face two epidemics at the same time, one of the seasonal flu and another of Covid-19.

While the flu shot has no known effect on the new coronavirus, government advisors have underlined that a successful campaign for the vaccine could have indirect effects on an anticipated resurgence of the coronavirus in the coming months.

“If a flu epidemic arises when the Covid-19 pandemic remains active, it will mean more patients and more strain on the health system,” says Daniel Floret, vice-president of the vaccines technical commission with France's High Authority for Health (HAS), which advises the government on public health matters.

Widespread flu vaccination would also ease pressure on labs testing for Covid-19 and reduce the risk of patients being infected with both viruses at the same time, the severity of which double infection remains unknown.

Campaign targets most vulnerable
Between 8,000 and 14,500 people have died of the flu each year over the past three winters in France, in most cases due to complications arising from the infection.

With the World Health Organisation (WHO) warning coronavirus cases will increase in Europe through October and November, medical experts and public officials are concerned about intensive care beds filling up with patients of two epidemics.

Because Covid-19 does not change the profile of who is most likely to develop complications, the HAS has advised the government to maintain its standard campaign, with the same targets and means.

That involves recommending the flu shot for people over 65 or who suffer from heart or breathing problems, obesity, diabetes and other conditions, as well as pregnant women.

Vaccination an 'act of good citizenship'
In line with WHO recommendations, French health advisors set a 75 percent objective for participation in the vaccine campaign, but only about 45 percent of the French population tends to get the shot, a figure comparable to the country's neighbours.

The context of the coronavirus pandemic has made for extra pressure for the general population to participate, including in a recent call of 75 lawmakers in the ruling majority encouraging people to get the flu shot in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The cohabitation of epidemics could cause delays in diagnosis, provoke complications for the most vulnerable and lead to a massive influx of hospital patients,” read the open letter published Sunday in newpaper Le Journal du dimanche.

“Vaccinating against the flu will become from this autumn a concern and above all an act of good citizenship.”

Laboratories boost production
Prior to the health ministry saying it had increased orders, laboratories have been producing more doses than in a standard year in anticipation of extra demand.

French laboratory Sanofi Pasteur, which produces 40 percent of the world's flu vaccines, or more than 200 million doses per year, is boosting capacity to 250 million doses, destined for both domestic and export markets.

“We have boosted our production by 20 percent for France and for the rest of the world,” Marie-Cécile Levant, manager of the flu vaccine programme at Sanofi Pasteur, told newspaper Le Parisien.

The amount of attention given to Covid-19 in the media and in public discourse is expected to have an impact on participation in the flu campaign.

“It's possible, even probable, that more people will get the vaccine than usual, hopefully in the vulnerable populations,” Floret says. “That happened during the H1N1 pandemic of 2009, where there was a very clear spike in participation for the seasonal flu vaccine.”

However, the flipside of concerns about boosting participation is a worry that demand could outstrip supply.

“The problem is there could be reduced supplies of vaccines if demand is too great,” Floret says, warning of consequences for the most vulnerable groups.​

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