AstraZeneca Gives FluMist A Shot In The Arm

Ads for flu vaccines have traditionally been confined to public service announcements (PSAs), health and media alerts.

So, that's why I was surprised to see this colorful full-page ad in The New York Times this weekend for FluMist from AstraZeneca/MedImmune.

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FluMist, as its name might suggest, is the vaccine that gets sprayed in your nose. MedImmune developed the product and brought it to market. But by industry standards, it's been a mediocre seller: For example, during the last flu season, FluMist had $55 million in revenue. That's a drop in the bucket for AstraZeneca .

That's probably why AZN, which bought MedImmune but let the company keep its name, is trying to put some big pharma marketing muscle behind FluMist. It's just kinda strange to see a big ad for a flu vaccine, especially in the middle of summer -- although I assume it's designed to blend in with and capitalize on the back-to-school shopping season stuff.

The companies recently announced that they started shipping around 12 million doses for the upcoming season, and that FluMist will be available in more locations than ever before. A FluMist spokesperson says this is a limited-time print-ad campaign that started running in the The Wall Street Journal and the Times within the past couple weeks.

MedImmune is one of the biopharma companies that billionaire activist investor Carl Icahn took a stake in, and saw it through to a very lucrative takeover by AZN.

This weekend Barron's ran a piece regarding something I've been reporting on and blogging about for quite some time: big pharma's continuing thirst for biotech. The article mentions Icahn's ImClone Systems and the "uncertain" outcome of Bristol-Myers Squibb's offer for IMCL.

The story also ticks off the short-list of potential biotech takeover targets, including another one of Icahn's new babies: Amylin Pharmaceuticals .

The story couldn't save Amylin shares from dropping more than 8 percent Monday, however, on reports that the FDA is seeking stronger warnings about the risk of pancreatitis in patients taking the firm's injectable diabetes drug Byetta.

In a note to subscribers today, David Kliff, editor of "The Diabetic Investor" newsletter, points out that Icahn recently increased his stake in AMLN from 6.3 million to 6.8 million shares.

Kliff says, "Carl sees the path for Amylin and has the clout to hit Lilly (AMLN's diabetes drug partner)...with a baseball bat pushing Lilly to acquire Amylin."

For the record, LLY and AMLN officials have consistently said they're happy with the partnership as it is. But while Kliff praises Icahn for his AMLN strategy, he also expresses incredulity about Icahn's new stake in another diabetes player, Emisphere . Diabetes drug goliath Novo Nordisk recently did a deal with EMIS to develop an oral treatment for the disease.

Kliff is skeptical about the drug's prospects, to say the least. "Even billionaires can make a mistake," he writes. I wouldn't know.

Questions? Comments?