There is always pressure on the Sanofi Pasteur teams to produce nearly half of the world’s flu vaccine supply, but this year has been exceptional in the complexity and scale of the operation.
There are four main families of flu viruses with multiple sub-types that can infect people. Different sub-types of viruses circulate across the Northern Hemisphere between the fall and following spring, which we call “flu season”. Each season it’s difficult to predict exactly which strains of the viruses will dominate, their severity, and the full impact on public health.
The WHO studies the circulation of the viruses throughout the year in order to make recommendations about which four sub-types should be included in the upcoming season’s vaccines. Sometimes there’s no change in vaccine recommendations, but often the WHO recommends a change from the prior year’s vaccine in one of the four strains. More rarely, the WHO recommends a change in two of the four viruses. Such is the case this year.
In addition to changes in two of the strains, the WHO also delayed its public health recommendations for one of the strains by one month to have the best chance of producing the right match for a strain that mutates often from season to season and sometimes even within seasons. In addition, more people are seeking to protect themselves against the flu, which has significantly increased demand compared with this time last year.
From final WHO recommendations in March to vaccine delivery beginning this fall, Sanofi Pasteur manufacturing teams have worked quickly to ensure we produce the necessary quantities of influenza vaccines to meet demands.
“This year’s starting place was essentially unprecedented, with shortened production timeframes and two new strains to produce,” notes Sophie Maraval, lead on early stage production at our Val de Reuil manufacturing site in northwestern France. “Our teams are well trained so we were able to find ways to make up for the shorter production cycle without ever compromising on the quality of our vaccines and still delivering increased supply to help meet global demand.”
“Every day counts when it comes to preparing influenza vaccines so we sent our own highly specialized transport to London to pick up the seed virus–the source of our vaccine production–directly from WHO’s reference labs, saving days in traditional transfer time from the lab. We also started producing some elements of the vaccine early, anticipating the likely virus selection that turned out to be the strain the WHO recommended.”
“Health care leaders around the world count on our vaccines and we strive to meet their expectations, no matter what,” says Laurence Grinie, lead for production of influenza antigens at Val de Reuil.
Annual flu vaccination can be given at any time in the weeks before flu season begins and throughout the fall and winter as necessary. However, WHO has reinforced the importance of extending the duration of public vaccination programs should there be supply delays.1 This helps control circulation of the viruses, offers protection against illness and reduces the risks of severe outcomes throughout the flu season.
“In the end, regardless of shifts and changes in the environment or in the virus itself, we always seek solutions each and every year to honor our commitments around the world to supplying influenza vaccines,” Laurence concludes. “That’s tens of millions of doses this season and every season that the Sanofi Pasteur team is proud to make and deliver to protect people around the world.”
The Unexpected Risks of Flu
People are realizing more and more–perhaps due to the reemergence of other diseases like measles that flu can be a serious disease and that vaccination remains the best way to help prevent it.
“It’s like the old saying: It’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it”
Global supply chain lead for influenza vaccines
last accessed September 2019
2 Macintyre C. R., Mahimbo A., Moa A. M., & Barnes M. (2016). Influenza vaccine as a coronary intervention for prevention of myocardial infarction. Heart, 102(24), 1953-1956. Retrieved from: https://heart.bmj.com/content/heartjnl/102/24/1953.full.pdf
3 Kwong, J. et. al. (2018). Acute Myocardial Infarction After Laboratory-Confirmed Influenza Infection. The New England Journal of Medicine, 78(4), p.349. Retrieved from: https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1702090