By Sharon Gelbach
Top epidemiologists the world over are warning that this fall’s flu season could be catastrophic, with patients suffering from flu and/or COVID overwhelming the health systems. One way of mitigating those effects, they say, is for as many people as possible to take the influenza vaccination.
Professor Arnon Afek, the deputy director of Sheba Medical Center in Israel remarked, “The World Health Organization, the CDC, and health ministries the world over have always recommended the flu vaccine for sensitive populations, but this year it’s critical.” The goals, he says, are twofold: “To reduce the risk of simultaneous infection and to reduce the burden on the health care systems.”
Professor Afek said that in order to create herd immunity for the flu and significantly reduce the number of patients needing hospitalization, 50% of the population will need to take the flu vaccine. Most years, that percentage stands at no more than 20% – 25%.
In the event of a shortage of flu vaccines in Israel, Afek said priority would be given to people with weakened immune systems and underlying health conditions as well as to health care workers.
Professor Eyal Leshem, director of Sheba’s Center for Travel Medicine and Tropical Diseases, explained that “influenza and COVID are not mutually exclusive. There are flu incidents and transmissions and they can definitely coincide with COVID — in the same person and at the same time.”
Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has likewise been delivering dire warnings about a possible influenza-COVID combo outbreak. At a House of Representatives committee in July, Redfield spoke of the urgency of vaccination against influenza, saying the flu together with COVID could devastate health care systems.
Redfield addressed two related concerns — a possible shortage of the vaccine in the wake of spiked demand, and people’s fear, in the era of coronavirus, of venturing out to health clinics to receive the vaccine. “The CDC is working with manufacturers to maximize influenza vaccine availability and with healthcare providers to develop contingency plans so that people can be vaccinated in a safe environment.”
Vaccine manufacturers suggested ways to safely administer flu shots during the pandemic, including curbside or parking lot immunizations and one-way traffic in health clinics.
Meanwhile, as billions of people across the globe anxiously await a coronavirus vaccine, there are fears that a vaccine may be marketed prematurely, before it is deemed safe. However, a new study by Tel Aviv University with Sheba Medical Center has established that the vaccines disseminated in the U.S. are overwhelmingly safe, thanks to strict regulatory procedures enforced by the FDA.
“Our study shows that the scrutiny that the FDA places on vaccine manufacturers before vaccine approvals is tremendous, resulting in approved vaccines being extremely safe,” said Dr. Noam Tau, MD, Department of Diagnostic Imaging at Israel’s Sheba Medical Center, who was the study’s lead researcher.
“It should also be remembered that quite a few of the vaccines being currently developed against SARS-CoV-2 are based on well-known and well-tested technologies, raising the bar for the safety of those potential vaccines even higher,” continued Dr. Tau.
“Going forward, given the extremely high profile of the current COVID-19 epidemic, and the even higher profile of the vaccine development process, the FDA, as well as the European EMA will require extremely high-quality research from drug companies before any vaccine would be approved, and the FDA monitoring systems would work at full capacity to assess for any unwanted side effects,” said Dr. Tau.