Mar 29, 2021

Did you know there is a flu vaccine alternative this year? The catch: It costs $40

Elderly woman flu jab

For the first time, Australia will be using cell technology to produce the flu vaccine this year, rather than the traditional egg-based vaccine used in the past.

There are several advantages to the new technology, which has been used in the United States for over a decade, and is estimated to be 5-10% more effective that the traditional method.

Firstly, the vaccine doesn’t require millions of eggs to be used in the manufacturing process. 

Immunisation Coalition chairman, Rod Pearce, who is a practising GP in South Australia, told the ABC, “The standard flu vaccine is made by injecting the virus that you think is the one that you’re trying to produce antibodies against into the egg.

“The egg reproduces it, and then you essentially take out the bits that you want and purify it and give it in the vaccine.”

This means the vaccine may contain minute traces of egg protein.

On the other hand, the new technology uses mammalian cells from a dog’s kidney. The cells keep dividing, so no dogs have to be sacrificed in making the vaccine.

Vaccine a better match to virus

Cell-based technology also enables scientists to grow flu viruses without them mutating, said Robert Booy, professor of paediatrics and child health at the University of Sydney, and a senior professorial fellow at the National Centre for Immunisation Research.

He told the ABC, “You often find that for the influenza virus to survive in eggs, it has to change a little, it has to mutate.”

Because the virus doesn’t mutate, the process produces a more effective vaccine against flu strains.

Every year, the World Health Organisation recommends the four stains that have to be included in flu vaccines, based on global data.

This year both the egg-based vaccine and the new cell-based vaccine will contain two A subtypes and two B lineages of influenza.

New vaccine will cost about $40

The traditional egg-based vaccine is funded under the National Immunisation Program and will remain free for certain groups, such as older adults, pregnant women and babies.

Patients will have to ask their GP for the new cell-based vaccine, and it is likely to cost about $40, according to the ABC.

What about the COVID-19 vaccine?

The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation has advised people to wait two weeks between getting the flu and COVID-19 vaccinations, regardless of which one you receive first.

The ATAGI recommends people in the earlier phases of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout receive that vaccine as soon they can, and have their flu immunisation afterwards.

But those in later phases of the rollout should get their flu shot as soon as they can, and have the COVID-19 vaccine later.

The AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine requires two doses 12 weeks apart. At a webinar on the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in aged care, Professor Michael Kidd AM, Deputy Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Health, said people can have their flu vaccine in between their two AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccinations.

Don’t forget your flu vaccine this year

States and territories are “still determining” if the flu vaccine will be compulsory for staff and visitors this year, Kidd said.

But across the Australian population, Kidd is strongly recommending people receive the flu vaccine this year.

“We are encouraging people to get vaccinated this year against influenza, just like we did last year,” he said. 

“We don’t know if we’re going to get a serious outbreak of influenza this year. We didn’t last year, but we may this year, and of course, influenza can be an absolutely devastating disease.”

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