SHANGHAI — Less than four months after China’s last major health crisis, parts of the country are facing a dire shortage of flu vaccine as peak season approaches. In the southern city of Guangzhou, flu vaccines for children are almost completely out of stock, while injections for adults can only be found at a handful of community health centers, local media outlet Yangcheng Evening News reported Wednesday.
The situation isn’t any better in the nation’s capital: Sources from Beijing’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention in October told China Securities Journal — a newspaper affiliated with state-owned Xinhua News Agency — that the city’s reserves of flu vaccines were completely depleted just four days after they were made available to the public. In Shanghai, meanwhile, some community health centers say they have yet to receive a single batch of vaccines. “In previous years, flu vaccines were made available in mid-to-late October — but this year, we’ll probably start offering this service in mid-November,” an employee at a health center in Shanghai’s Pudong New Area told Sixth Tone.
One reason for this year’s vaccine shortage is likely the severity of the last flu season, which in China lasts roughly from December through March. According to data from China’s National Health Commission, in February there were 139,738 flu cases, 50 of which proved fatal. Both of these figures are significantly higher than in the year prior: Just six out of 22,998 people who came down with the flu in February 2017 ended up dying.
An article titled “Middle-Aged Beijing Man Under the Flu” — in which a man recounts how the virus claimed his father’s life in less than a month — went viral in February, garnering over 10 million views and contributing to a public panic to get vaccinated. “At the end of October, I signed my whole family up to get flu vaccines. I don’t want my parents or my young daughter to be at risk during the coming flu season,” said Beijing resident Mo Keke, whose husband contracted the H1N1 influenza virus last December. “He was very sick for about two weeks,” Mo told Sixth Tone on Wednesday. “Fortunately, there were no complications.”
Higher public demand isn’t the only factor contributing to this year’s vaccine shortage: Stocks from manufacturers are way down as well. China Securities Journal cited data from the National Institutes for Food and Drug Control saying that in the first three quarters of this year, health authorities approved a total of 7.35 million doses of flu vaccine, half as many as over the same period last year. Changchun Changsheng Life Sciences Ltd. — the pharmaceutical company that was found to have falsified data and produced hundreds of thousands of ineffective vaccines — alone provided 3.6 million doses of flu vaccine for the domestic market in 2017. But the company was fined 9.1 billion yuan ($1.3 billion) and had its production license revoked in October of this year, three months after news of the scandal broke in July.
Other vaccine manufacturers, too, have reported lower production this year. Sanofi, a French pharmaceutical company, usually provides between 6 million and 7 million doses of flu vaccine for the Chinese market each year. But as of October, Sanofi had had just 1.2 million doses approved for distribution to China’s health centers.
“The reasons [for the drop in production] are complicated,” Xia Huacheng, head of flu product development at Sanofi, told Sixth Tone on Wednesday at the China International Import Expo in Shanghai, where the company is promoting its latest flu vaccine. That product, Flublok, has not yet been approved for the Chinese market.
“For one thing, competition among flu vaccine producers is fierce in China, as there are more than 10 such manufacturers; in addition, local demand used to be lower,” Xia said, adding that profit margins for flu vaccines are slim. In China, only around 2 percent of the population gets vaccinated against influenza, compared with over 45 percent in the United States.
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: A girl gets a flu vaccination at a hospital in Beijing, Oct. 15, 2014. Wang Haixin/VCG)