updated 12/9/2003 4:01:38 PM ET 2003-12-09T21:01:38

Shortages of flu shots could boost disappointing sales of the needle-free vaccine FluMist this winter, but analysts say the drug’s long term outlook is dogged by a high price and limits on who can use it.

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The news last Friday that the nation’s two producers of traditional flu vaccine injections have run out of stock and won’t be able to produce more this season has led some health agencies and consumers to turn to FluMist.

There is plenty of the nasal spray vaccine available — only 400,000 doses out of the roughly 4 million doses made by Gaithersburg-based MedImmune and its partner, Wyeth, have been distributed to pharmacies and flu vaccine sites.

State health agencies are recommending that healthy people between the ages of 5 and 49 use FluMist and save what remains of the traditional vaccine for others.

Until last week, MedImmune had a hard time selling FluMist. Its wholesale price of $46 per dose is much higher than the cost of flu shots. And the drug — originally billed as a painless alternative for those scared of needles — hasn’t been approved for use by toddlers and seniors.

At pharmacies in 33 Giant Food grocery stores in Virginia, FluMist sales tripled last week over the previous week, company spokesman Jamie Miller said. FluMist sells for $59.95 at Giant, while a flu shot is $20, he said.

“FluMist will probably be the last place to turn,” said Philip Nadeau, an analyst with SG Cowen Securities. “I think most physicians would think that FluMist is better than nothing.”
MedImmune spokeswoman Jamie Lacey said it was too early to tell how the vaccine shortage would affect FluMist sales.

FluMist, which contains a live but weakened flu virus, is meant to be a painless alternative to the traditional flu injection, which is made from a dead flu virus.

MedImmune hoped FluMist would be a blockbuster drug, much like its childhood respiratory drug Synagis that had $668 million in sales last year. The company pumped $25 million into an ad campaign touting the drug to consumers and another $25 million pitching it to pharmacies.
But the drug’s introduction was hampered by several factors.

Citing safety concerns, the Food and Drug Administration did not approve FluMist for children under 5 years and those above 50, the two groups at the greatest risk for the flu.

Then in October, Wal-Mart backed out of an agreement to stock FluMist in its pharmacies.
MedImmune and Wyeth now offer a $25 mail-in rebate for FluMist customers to try to cut the cost, but the high price will remain a stumbling block beyond this flu season, said analyst Dennis Harp of Deutsche Bank-North America.

Chiron and Aventis Pasteur, the two producers of vaccine shots, will likely produce more doses next year to avoid shortages, he said, threatening to leave MedImmune with an overpriced product and not much of a market.

“It remains a very expensive product,” Harp said. “They will have to reintroduce the product at a lower price, which means they might not make any money off it in 2004.”

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