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Why vaccine-makers fear flu jabs may fail this winter

Experts say lack of data on dominant strains of influenza could lead to fatal vaccine mismatch

Fears are growing that the NHS will be overwhelmed this winter as vaccine makers warn that flu jabs may not prove effective.

Influenza vaccines are “typically formulated to protect against several strains of the virus”, explained The Independent. But global influenza surveillance conducted through the World Health Organization (WHO) has been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, resulting in a lack of data on which flu variants are likely to pose the greatest threats in the coming months.

The UN health agency issued advice in February on what to include in this year’s flu vaccines for countries in the northern hemisphere. But according to The Telegraph’s science editor Sarah Knapton, “vaccine makers say that global genetic sequencing of flu had dropped by up to 94% in the months preceding the decision”, as labs were repurposed to sequence Covid data.

And “the mass cancellation of flights, as countries closed their borders and imposed travel restrictions, has also led to a 62% drop in shipments of influenza surveillance samples”.

Dr Beverly Taylor of pharmaceutical company Seqirus - which provides the UK with flu jabs -  told The Telegraph that the shortage of data had “reduced the opportunity to look at which vaccines would give the best overall protection and the best coverage of all the circulating viruses”.

This lack of information “could potentially see a mismatch for at least one of the subtypes”, and “that’s cause for concern”, she said.

In 2015, a mismatched flu jab contributed to a massive spike in mortality rates, with 28,189 excess deaths recorded - the total number of deaths above the average count for a given period - and the first fall in life expectancy in England and Wales for two decades.

With natural immunity to influenza in the general population now low as a result of Covid lockdowns and social distancing, the Academy of Medical Sciences has forecast that flu could kill up to 60,000 people this winter. 

The Department of Health and Social Care announced in July that the biggest flu jab scheme “in history” would be rolled out this year, with 35 million people expected to be offered the vaccines.

The Telegraph reported last week “Britain’s vaccine mega-factory will seek to combine flu and Covid jabs into a single shot”, in order to save time and make future booster programmes more convenient.

Dr Matthew Duchars, chief executive of the government-funded Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre, told the paper: “If you can put them all into one then that's obviously preferable.”

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