Flu vaccines: PHARMAC’s role

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2020 flu season

1.768 million doses of influenza vaccine have been secured for this flu season, a 30% (400,000 doses) increase on the number of doses available in 2019. 

Flu vaccines are different

Flu vaccines are seasonal. The season usually runs from 1 April to 31 December. We need to be vaccinated every year because there are different strains of the flu virus circulating each year. So the flu vaccine is updated annually. 

The Government has subsidised influenza (flu) vaccines for people that meet clinical criteria since 1997.

PHARMAC began managing flu vaccine funding in 2004. The Ministry of Health is responsible for the implementation and promotion of the annual flu vaccination programme.

We manage this vaccine differently

PHARMAC manages the distribution and funding of flu vaccine differently from other vaccines. PHARMAC contracts with one flu vaccine supplier to supply vaccine for people who are eligible for funded vaccination. In addition to the supply of the vaccine itself, the supplier is responsible for:

  • forecasting how many vaccines will be needed in New Zealand
  • storing the vaccine and distributing it to vaccinators
  • ensuring there’s enough doses for all publicly funded vaccinations.

People in most need can get a free flu vaccine, but there are a lot of people in New Zealand who aren’t eligible for a free one.

There's a private market too

Unlike other vaccines, lots of people choose to pay for the flu vaccine or their employer might pay for it. We call this the ‘private market’. 

Often there are several flu vaccine suppliers who supply the private market each year. PHARMAC talks with all suppliers to share information and make sure there’s enough vaccine in New Zealand for both publicly funded and private vaccinations.

How many flu vaccines do we use

Each year, there are usually about 700,000 people who get a funded flu vaccination. The number of people who pay for their own flu vaccine (private market) can vary.

Many factors influence how many people get vaccinated privately, such as media interest or reports of a bad flu season in the Northern hemisphere.  

Who buys the flu vaccine

Unlike other funded vaccines, PHARMAC doesn’t buy or store flu vaccines. We list it on the Pharmaceutical Schedule, so vaccinators can buy it like other funded medicines. DHBs then repay vaccinators when it’s given to an eligible person.

Vaccinators buy the flu vaccine from the supplier, just like other medicines. Vaccinators include DHBs, general practices (doctors or nurses), pharmacists, and occupational health providers.

Market dynamics for the flu vaccine

The publicly funded part of the market makes up about half of the total number of doses (about 700,000) used in New Zealand each year. PHARMAC contracts with one supplier to meet demand for all funded flu vaccines. That supplier also competes with other suppliers for a share of the private market.

Coordinating both markets

PHARMAC takes a coordinating overview of the quantity of vaccine all suppliers (public and private) are planning to supply to New Zealand.

When we think it’s necessary, we ask suppliers to consider bringing in more doses. Private market suppliers don’t have to comply, but they’re generally supportive of our requests.

Predicting how much vaccine to bring to New Zealand for both the private and publicly funded market is complex. If stock is not used by the end of the flu season this a commercial risk for each supplier. They won’t get paid for it and they can’t sell it in another country.  

How does PHARMAC know how many doses are needed?

When evaluating how much vaccine is likely to be needed (both funded and private), PHARMAC considers things like:

  • population growth
  • the total number of doses distributed in recent seasons
  • any Ministry of Health flu vaccination target
  • the severity of previous seasons
  • any early reports about the Northern Hemisphere flu season.

Ordering and manufacturing flu vaccine happens many months before the start of the flu season. Vaccines take a long time to make and ship to New Zealand, so manufacturers can’t make more product during the flu season if demand is higher than forecast.

If demand is higher in New Zealand, our only option is to see if there is stock available that had been allocated to other countries and might not be used there.

When do people get vaccinated?

The distribution of the flu vaccine follows a very similar pattern each year. Most vaccines are sent out to vaccinators between mid-March and mid-May. From mid-May, the distribution rate slows dramatically and has a long tail until the end of the year. 

The 2019 flu season was different

In the 2019 season, instead of demand tapering off in mid-May, demand continued at a higher rate into early June. This exhausted both public and private stocks of flu vaccine by mid-June.

Reasons for this increase in demand may have included:

  • the Ministry’s flu vaccination advertising
  • publicity about severe flu seasons in Australia and in the Northern Hemisphere.

PHARMAC’s response to the 2019 shortage

When we started seeing that demand might exceed supply, PHARMAC asked the contracted supplier and private market if they could get any extra stock for New Zealand. One private market supplier had 14,000 doses of a different flu vaccine that it could supply. This vaccine was rapidly approved by Medsafe for use in New Zealand.

PHARMAC quickly listed the vaccine on the Pharmaceutical Schedule, with the same funding criteria as the funded vaccine. This was to ensure that the people who needed it the most could get vaccinated.

Who to contact

The Immunisation Advisory Centre has two websites about the flu vaccine:

If you have questions about flu vaccine supply management, email enquiry@pharmac.govt.nz