RSV vaccine is in short supply as cases rise
Medical professionals and politicians like U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal this week said people looking to prevent a common respiratory illness that hits hardest among young children and the elderly are not finding the recently approved vaccines readily available.
Dr. Kevin Torres, associate chief medical officer at New London’s Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, described the immunizations as “difficult to find” at a time when cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) have been increasing steadily.
The antibody treatment developed for newborns and infants by the pharmaceutical companies Sanofi and AstraZeneca is currently being rationed based on recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control after the companies said they underestimated demand for the shots.
The antibody treatment was approved in July by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which also authorized vaccines for older adults and pregnant women this year.
Numbers from the state Department of Public Health show 966 reported cases of RSV last week, up from 687 cases the previous week. Hospitalizations came in at 46 last week compared to 52 the week prior.
Of five deaths attributed to the virus since Oct. 1, all were among older adults.
“RSV has been big, and it continues to be big,” Torres said.
At L+M Hospital and Westerly Hospital, both affiliated with Yale New Haven Health, 17.9% of people tested were positive for RSV so far this month compared to 13.9% during the same time period last year. Those numbers include outpatients, inpatients and emergency department patients.
Dr. William Horgan, an emergency medicine and pediatric emergency medicine specialist at Backus Hospital in Norwich, said he’s worried how much more severe the problem will get.
He pointed to some southern states currently “devastated” by the number of RSV cases in emergency departments and pediatric hospitals. Since Connecticut is typically months behind the South, he said, the same thing could happen here by the time cases of the virus peak around January.
“That’s my biggest concern, especially with the shortages of the vaccine,” he said.
Vaccines for adults over the age of 60 and pregnant women are also in short supply, according to the doctor. He said the vaccine from Pfizer for expectant mothers protects babies for up to six months after birth if given in late pregnancy.
Blumenthal on Monday spoke at an East Hartford community health center, saying Sanofi and AstraZenca should be held accountable for the availability of the antibody treatment for babies that sells privately for $495 and to the federal government’s Vaccines for Children program for $395 per injection. The federal program offers the treatment for free to families who can’t afford it.
“Insurance should cover it. The Vaccines for Children program does cover it,” Blumenthal said. “But there is simply a shortage of it so many pediatricians can’t provide it for their patients.”
Sanofi in an October statement said it is working with AstraZeneca “to explore solutions to address this exceptional demand.”
Blumenthal this month joined a half dozen Democratic colleagues in the Senate in sending a letter to the two pharmaceutical companies asking for an update on the availability of the vaccine, how the supply issues occurred and how to prevent them from happening again.
The senators underscored the importance of the issue by pointing to CDC statistics that show RSV as the leading cause of hospitalization in infants under a year old, averaging 16 times higher than the annual rate for influenza.
The new RSV vaccines and antibody treatment emerged after a worrisome 2022-23 season marked by the triple threat of COVID-19, RSV and influenza.
RSV cases typically come to a head during the winter months, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has said emerging from isolation in the spring of 2021 led to an unusual summertime peak among people who had not been exposed to germs for so long. In 2022, the peak came later ― but still earlier than usual ― in the fall.
Horgan said the risk to older adults, especially those with existing lung conditions, is greater now because natural immunity bolstered by repeated and often mild bouts of the illness were interrupted by the pandemic and related precautions like social distancing and mask wearing.
“Our immune systems completely and totally forgot about what it was,” he said of RSV, adding that more respiratory complications are emerging as people’s immune systems “start to learn about it again.”
Blumenthal described the situation as a preventable public health crisis.
“RSV is the number one cause of infant hospitalization, and yet we face a shortage of the treatment,” he said. “That is totally unacceptable in the greatest country in the history of the world with supposedly the best health care system.”
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