After suffering through two big outbreaks of the coronavirus, many people in Italy greeted news that a vaccine could be available by early next year with some optimism.
But one of the country’s most renowned virologists and Covid-19 experts has provided a reality check about the country’s ability to carry out a mass vaccination drive — he says he hasn’t even been able to get a simple flu shot.
“It’s a real scandal,” the virologist, Massimo Galli, director of the infectious disease department at the Sacco hospital in Milan said Sunday on Italian television. While he expressed hope that the country would eventually be able to distribute a coronavirus vaccine to citizens, Mr. Galli said the outlook was “ghastly.”
That Mr. Galli, who is 69 and among the most recognizable, quoted and consulted coronavirus experts in the country could not get his hands on a simple flu vaccine renewed concerns among Italian experts about a potential lack of preparedness to procure and distribute a coronavirus vaccine when it became available.
“We can’t think of improvising as we usually do in this country,” Silvio Garattini, the president of the Mario Negri institute of pharmaceutical research, told La Repubblica, a Rome daily, adding that Italy was not equipped to store an eventual vaccine. “We weren’t even able to start the anti-flu campaign.”
Mr. Garattini, 92, said he hasn’t been able to get a flu vaccine either.
Unlike in the United States, where getting a flu shot at the local drugstore can be as seamless as picking up toiletries, it is more formal, and less common, in Italy. Young and healthy Italians generally don’t get a flu shot, and the vaccine is usually recommended only for the very young and elderly.
But this year was different.
In June, Italy’s health authorities urged people to get vaccinated against the flu, which has similar symptoms to coronavirus. The aim was to improve public health generally, reduce peoples’ chances of being gravely affected by the coronavirus, free up space for the country’s overwhelmed hospitals and help doctors detect Covid-19.
The Italian government also lowered the minimum age for a free vaccine from 65 to 60.
But five months later, flu shots are few and far between, and millions of Italians, including elderly people and patients with pre-existing conditions, haven’t been able to get the vaccine.
Some experts say that Italy’s regions, which control health care systems within their borders, placed their orders too late amid enormously high demand on the international marketplace.
Regional authorities have instead attributed the shortage to delays by the providers. So the flu vaccine, advertised at many bus stops, has often simply not arrived.
Some pharmacists, tired of turning away flu-shot seekers, have posted discouraging signs on their windows: “Vaccines didn’t come, we don’t know when they are coming.” That is not the situation the government had envisioned on June 5, when the Health Ministry recommended that the flu vaccination campaign start in early October and that the regions place more orders than usual to meet increased demand.
In the hard-hit Serio valley in northern Italy, a doctor, Mario Sorlini, said a much higher than usual number of patients had asked to be vaccinated for the flu. But the region only sent him about half the doses he received last year.
“We were the hardest-hit province by Covid and I was only able to do 25 percent of the flu vaccines I have to do,” Dr. Sorlini said. If he and his colleagues do not receive the doses before the flu comes, he said, it would be a “disaster on top of a disaster.”
Mr. Sorlini, 67, said he hasn’t been able to get a shot himself either.
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