Fears that response to public health drive could complicate efforts to contain Covid-19

Chinese tourists in BeijingChinese tourists in Beijing. Photograph: Mark Schiefelbein/AP

A surge in demand for flu shots in Chinese cities has caused shortages, long lines and triple markups on vaccines by scalpers selling them online.

Residents, afraid of the possibility of catching both the flu and Covid-19 – what some have called a “twindemic”, have rushed to clinics since Chinabegan its flu vaccine campaign in September.

Chinese health authorities in September advised residents to get shots for the flu, whose symptoms are similar to early stage Covid-19 and could complicate efforts to contain the virus this winter. Officials have also said that Covid-19 combined with the flu could raise mortality rates.

Ahead of the winter, Chinese cities have launched a public health campaign to raise the country’s traditionally low flu vaccine rate of about 2%, compared with 50% in the US. Experts believe this year’s rate should double, reaching 4%. Some cities began the campaign as early as August while authorities said the amount of doses available this year would be double that of last year.

In Beijing, clinics have reported serious shortages and elsewhere in the country residents complain they have not been able to get the shots.

“Right now the amount of vaccines cannot keep up,” a receptionist at the Chaoyangmen community health centre, a public clinic in Beijing’s Chaoyang district, which said it had a waiting list of 1,200 people but only 400 doses to give out as of the end of September.

A community hospital in another district, Dongzhimen, said it had about 180 doses but more than 1,000 people waiting to be vaccinated. Private clinics, where patients pay more for treatment, also described shortages.

Flu vaccines being sold online were going for as much as 450 yuan, more than three times the cost at public clinics. On Weibo, internet users called for more regulation of the industry and blamed drug companies for not anticipating demand. Others questioned the safety of using vaccines bought from scalpers while some said they would give up.

“I’ve decided not to get vaccinated. I will wash my hands and wear a mask. There’s nothing to be afraid of,” one said.

Additional reporting by Lillian Yang