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Drug makers try to fight flu outbreak

Amid all the warnings about a rough flu season ahead, it’s almost a sure bet that some drug makers are in for a very busy season. — By CNBC’s Mike Huckman
/ Source: CNBC

Amid all the warnings about a rough flu season ahead, it’s almost a sure bet that some drug makers are in for a very busy season.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly a dozen states so far — most of them out west — have reported widespread flu.

Several people, many of them children, have died.

One of those Western states, New Mexico has been scrambling to get its hands on more vaccine. The problem is the stuff is made months ahead of time. The companies that make it stockpile the vaccine and simply try to accurately estimate what demand will be.

The reason it’s done so far in advance is the companies have to buy millions of eggs which are used to cultivate the vaccine.

The flu shot leader is Aventis Pasteur, part of European drug maker Aventis.

And the new number two because of a recent acquisition is the California biopharmaceutical firm Chiron.

The season is shaping up to be so threatening that Wyeth and Medimmune — which make the new aerosol treatment Flumist — put out a press release Thursday telling people it’s still not too late to get vaccinated.

So far, Flumist is not having much success. In fact, Medimmune recently cut its fourth quarter and 2003 earnings forecast because the Flumist launch has not gone nearly as well as it thought it would.

Critics say Flumist is too expensive. But since it’s nearly impossible for Aventis and Chiron to quickly make more vaccine, A.G. Edwards analyst Craig West says the current situation could boost flagging Flumist sales.

“The capacity of those two manufacturers and really everyone is completely and utterly restrained by the fact you have to make this in chicken eggs, and you order those in the spring of the year before,” West said, whose firm makes a market in Medimmune and Chiron. “So if they run out of conventional, inactivated injectable vaccine, the only available would be Flumist, so yes it would help.”

There’s been some talk that this year’s flu vaccine may not contain the strain that threatens to sweep the country.

But experts think the vaccine contains a strain that’s similar enough to the excluded one to either prevent it or at least lessen its severity.

On the other hand it’s really too soon to tell because the flu normally does not peak until around February.