Monday, October 18, 2004

Short on Shots, Long on Stocks: How Big Business Inoculated Itself Against the Flu Vaccine Shortage

In Mid-October, British regulators halted production of the flu vaccine after finding an unsanitary surprise at a Chiron Corp factory in Liverpool (one of two suppliers of the vaccine to US markets, the other being Aventis). While most Americans were scrambling to the nearest clinic in order to beat the rush, others were logging on to their E*Trade accounts and typing in MEDI. That's the ticker symbol of MedImmune, a Maryland-based biotechnology company that manufactures FluMist (an intranasal flu vaccine) which has received a lot of press after our administration decided they wouldn't replace the 50 million or so vaccines needed to adequately cover Americans this Fall.

So why aren't we making the necessary adjustments? Money. The fact of the matter, as a recent column in Business Week points out, is that vaccines sit at the lower half of the world's priority list. Get this: Sales of all vaccines are a paltry 7 or 8 billion dollars, laughable when compared to the cash-generating leviathans of Big Pharma like Zocor, Prozac, and Viagra. Business-wise, the vaccines are risky ventures, with profit margins thin and the technology used to create the vaccines onerous and tiring (contamination in the testing stages is common). Even more, there are natural biological barriers to wrestle with, such as the fact that vaccines are tailored to the prevaling strain in any given year, so mass reserves and adequate preparation isn't as easy as you think.

Needless to say, 10-20% of Americans will get the flu this winter. With federal authorities sitting this one out, some states have taken matters into their own hands. In one town in New Jersey, a lottery is being held in mid-October to dictate who will get a shot. Pick a number and hope you get a shot at living.

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