The Australian flu season typically peaks from June to August, the winter months in that part of the southern hemisphere. This year, the run up to influenza season coincided with the escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic, making Australia an early test case for what happens when countries need to contend with both pathogens at the same time.
With the 2020 flu season now nearing the end, Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has shared data on the number of influenza vaccines that it processed for batch release for export and domestic use.
The TGA processed 19.4 million doses, 17.6 million of which were destined for use in Australia. The figure represents an increase of 5 million doses over last year and a still-bigger jump compared to the recent past. From 2012 to 2017, the TGA processed around 8 million doses a year.
The 2020 rise is in line with comments made by Sanofi last month. Ahead of an anticipated record flu vaccine season in the US, Sanofi reported a 40% increase in shipments to the southern hemisphere.
While the number of vaccines processed by the TGA rose from 2017 to 2019, the 2020 data still mark an acceleration of the upward trajectory. TGA attributed the increase to “unprecedented demand” for influenza vaccines without offering an explanation.
COVID-19 is likely to have played a role. In April, the Australian government asked everyone in the country to arrange a vaccination and invested more than AU$80 million ($59 million) to secure more free vaccines for at-risk groups including seniors and, for the first time, children aged six months to five years. The government also made flu vaccination mandatory for anyone entering a care home.
The TGA data suggest many Australians outside of the at-risk populations who receive free vaccines acted on the government request for everyone to get a influenza shot. Australia is home to around 25 million people, suggesting approximately 70% of the population may have received a flu vaccine.
Strong uptake of the flu vaccine and, perhaps more significantly, social distancing measures imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19 appear to have led to a very mild flu season in Australia.
By this time last year, Australia had tracked 247,277 notifications of laboratory-confirmed influenza. This year, the number of notifications stands at 21,079. Australia received more notifications of flu cases between August 12 and 25 of last year than in all of 2020 to date.