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A Shot In The Bottom Line

Pharma Stocks
CNBC.com
Pharma Stocks

Here we go again. To almost no one's surprise, for the first time in 41 years, the World Health Organization has declared a full-blown swine flu pandemic. But the declaration is tied more to the geographic spread of the virus than it is to its virulence.

Nonetheless, nearly all of the usual-suspect flu-related stocks, especially the little ones, are moving on the "news." Vaccine players Crucell and Novavax and antiviral developer BioCryst Pharmaceuticals seem to be flu-news standbys for daytraders and the like.

Most major drug companies used to avoid the vaccine business like the plague. No one on Wall Street or in the financial press really paid much attention to it, unless a severe flu season and a vaccine shortage started making it into the mainstream media.

But lately there's been a rennaissance driven by breakthrough vaccines like Merck's Gardasil, the first shot for the leading cause of cervical cancer, and MRK's Zostavax for shingles, just to name a couple. Suddenly, it became a fast-growing, highly-profitable multi-billion dollar segment, although Gardasil has certainly hit a rough patch. In recent years GlaxoSmithKline bought a Canadian vaccine company and Novartis bought Chiron. Vaccines are very much en vogue.

  • CDC: Swine flu pandemic level won't change efforts
  • Swine flu may have been spreading in August

I've been through the hype and hoopla of the bird flu scare, SARS and most recently the pig flu. But for the first time that I can remember, an analyst sees the potential for real, near-term upside in the flu vaccine business with the WHO's escalating threat level. JPMorgan's medical device analyst Mike Weinstein covers Baxter and he made a midday call that seemed to cause a spike in the stock. He thinks that Baxter vaccine orders in the UK alone will add six to eight cents to earnings per share starting in the fourth quarter.

Weinstein says government advanced purchase agreements (APAs) will not only help Baxter, but other big vaccine makers like GSK, Sanofi-Aventis and, perhaps, NVS. In a research note to clients Weinstein writes, "These agreements are, in effect, call options, whereby countries have been paying the manufacturers for the right to purchase vaccines upon declaration of a pandemic by the WHO." He later told me over the phone, "It's gonna be a big deal." JPM has banked BAX and wants to do it some more.

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And the Chair of the Preventive Medicine Department at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Dr. William Schaffner, indicates that Weinstein could be onto something. In an interview I did with him today, he said if the vaccine companies are successful, in a timely manner, in developing shots for the H1N1 virus that people would not only have to get their regular seasonal flu shot, but also one or possibly two additional shots to protect them against the swine flu.

I'm a big baby when it comes to needles. I always turn my head the other way and squeeze my eyes shut. The thought of having to possibly get three flu shots later this year is not all that appealing. But if it keeps me from getting sick, so be it. At the very least, it's apparently going to make some bottom line's healthier.

Questions? Comments? Pharma@cnbc.com and follow me on Twitter at mhuckman