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Novartis' Flu Shot Across The Bow

Pharmacist wearing face mask
AP
Pharmacist wearing face mask

As the first H1N1 vaccine arrives in clinics this week, the mainstream media are once again cranking up their swine flu coverage. CNBC is devoting more airtime and CNBC.com is allocating more space to the topic as well, but most of the stuff is a little more niche focused for an investor and business audience.

Yesterday and today thousands of kids and healthcare workers around the country started getting AstraZeneca's H1N1 FluMist, the vaccine that's sprayed into the nose. The first shots from Novartis and Sanofi-Aventis may be available later this week. GlaxoSmithKline and Baxter are still waiting for the FDA to approve their vaccines.

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But with the vaccines getting increased media attention, the companies are busy trying to show they're on top of the situation. GSK put out a press releasetoday updating the size of government orders for its H1N1 shot that it's calling "Pandemrix."

And NVS issued a press releaseupdating the amount of seasonal flu vaccine it has shipped. But I don't think the 27 million doses has sent to the U.S., so far, is the headline. Rather, I think the most remarkable thing in the press release is how NVS has apparently decided to go on the offensive regarding the safety of flu shots.

Check out this excerpt:

"The number of people in the U.S. who die every year from the flu is similar to the more than 40,000 people in the U.S. estimated to die from breast cancer every year and about half of the estimated 70,000 people who die annually of diabetes and its complications. During the 2007-2008 influenza season, 83 children were reported to have died of influenza-related causes. Of the 63 whose vaccination status was known, 58 (92 percent) were not vaccinated according to recommendations. Influenza vaccination is one of the most effective public health interventions ever implemented, sparing millions of people from complications of the infectious disease. Use of currently available seasonal flu vaccines has been calculated to save more than 8 million lives annually; translating to one person saved every five seconds."

I haven't seen that kind of blunt language in any other company's releases.

To compare flu deaths to the highly publicized number of breast cancer and diabetes deaths is pretty powerful.

And the 92 percent unvaccinated statistic for fatalities among children is darn sobering.

Will it quiet the critics or convince all fearful parents to get their kids vaccinated? I don't think so. But you have to hand it to Novartis for, at least, recognizing the buzz (some might call it misinformation) that's out there and trying to very matter-of-factly take it on.

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