As COVID-19 cases spike, pneumonia vaccine demand rockets and Europe runs low

By Emilio Parodi, Ludwig Burger and Michael Erman
MILAN / FRANKFURT / NEW YORK (Reuters) - As COVID-19 infections rise, people wanting to avoid lung disease are queuing to get vaccinated against bacterial pneumonia, leading to a shortage of Merck & amp; Co-vaccines leads.
Demand for Merck's Pneumovax 23, which is used to prevent pneumococcal lung infections, has reached record highs worldwide.
More than 40 companies and researchers are testing vaccines against the novel coronavirus, but none have been approved in the West.
In the meantime, doctors are giving more people pneumonia preventive measures than ever before.
Pneumococcal prevention, the largest segment of the vaccine market by value, had sales of approximately $ 7 billion in 2019, which were contested by Pfizer, Merck and GlaxoSmithKline.
Pfizers Prevenar 13, known in North America as Prevnar 13, is the global market leader with sales of around $ 5.8 billion in 2019. It works in both infants and the elderly, but it covers fewer strands of bacteria than the Merck product.
GSK's Synflorix is ​​designed for children.
Its use varies from country to country, but Pneumovax 23, which lasts about five years, is mainly given to the elderly.
"During the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation, there has been an increased focus on adult vaccinations and we've seen an unprecedented increase in demand for Pneumovax 23 worldwide," a Merck spokesperson told Reuters in an email.
International sales of Pneumovax 23 more than doubled to $ 96 million in the second quarter, despite US sales declining significantly, according to the quarterly report.
The US drug maker is working to produce as much as possible, but demand is outstripping supply in some markets, the spokesman added.
And shipments in Germany, Italy, Belgium, Ireland and Austria are running out, according to the drug agencies overseeing shipments for those countries.
The news is likely to fuel concerns about drug availability as people look for ways to boost their immunity during the cold winter months.
In some European cities, stocks of seasonal flu vaccines are also low due to concerns about the risk of potentially fatal "twin chemistry".
Delfino Legnani, a professor at the University of Milan, said he has been recommending the Pneumovax 23 shot to his elderly patients for years, but some weren't ready to get it for the first time until this winter.
"It's practically impossible to find. Now everyone wants it, so there aren't enough doses," he said.
The Italian Medicines Agency has classified the medicine as a scarce product and authorized pharmacies to purchase goods from abroad that are approved for placing on the market under a special authorization scheme.
There are no signs of supply problems in the US.

Other countries are feeling the crisis too.
The Irish health products regulator said on its website that an unexpected surge in demand has resulted in a shortage since March and affects several countries.
The Belgian equivalent also said the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a worldwide surge in demand for Pneumovax 23.
"The stocks of this vaccine are currently very limited in Belgium," it said. There were still some emergency supplies left, but these should be reserved for infants and the elderly with impaired immune systems or at particular risk of lung disease.
Different countries have chosen to ration the vaccine in different ways based on priority.
The German expert committee for the use of vaccines, known as STIKO, has raised the minimum age for use in older people from 60 to 70 years, among other things.
It cautioned that Pneumovax 23, with its broader coverage of bacterial types, should not be replaced by vaccines with lower effectiveness.
Germany, which temporarily imported batches of Pneumovax 23 originally made for Japan in April, said individual pre-filled syringes may be fully available again in January, but did not provide any estimate of when the 10-syringe pack would be fully refilled .
GlaxoSmithKline stated that it does not see any delivery restrictions for Synflorix supplies in Europe.
Pfizer said pneumococcal vaccine demand has increased in some markets due to COVID-19 and raised awareness of adult vaccinations, but production is up and has "a healthy supply".

(Reporting by Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt, Emilion Parodi in Milan, Mike Erman in New York, John Miller in Zurich, Francesco Gauresco in Brussels; editing by Josephine Mason and Andrew Heavens in London)

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