Big Pharma's Shot In The Arm

I still haven't gotten my H1N1 flu shot.

During a recent stint at the Nasdaq I kept stopping by the Kmart pharmacy in New York's Penn Station on my way home from work to get the vaccine. There were banners hanging from the ceiling heralding that H1N1 shots were now available, but every time I approached the counter I got the same answer. "Oh, we're not doing them today. Come back, next Tuesday (or some other day) between nine and four." Not convenient at all. I mean, a Kmart in the middle of commuter central and they're offering shots outside of rush hour?

Then I stumbled on a vaccine station at the San Francisco airport before my return flight from the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference. But there was only one shot-giver, two guys were waiting and my flight was boarding. I guess I just have to make the time because I still want and intend to get it.

I don't buy into the silly conspiracy theories that global health authorities worked in cahoots with the big, bad drug companies to gin up a pandemic scare just to goose vaccine and flu drug sales.

Try telling that to the family of someone who died from H1N1.

To be sure, some companies did benefit financially from the outbreak. Roche sold more than $3 billion worth of Tamiflu last year and gave some of that money in revenue royalties to Gilead Sciences, which invented the drug. And GlaxoSmithKline sold $1.1 billion worth of Relenza in 2009. A year earlier it had just $105 million in revenue from the inhalable flu antiviral. Meantime, the vaccine makers are now faced with some governments returning their unused product.

This isn't an apropos-of-nothing blog vent.

Two things happened today that prompted me to revisit this not-too-long-ago hot topic. First, Harvard came out with a surveyshowing 44 percent of Americans think H1N1 is done. And 61 percent of adults have not been vaccinated and don't plan to be.

And then the CDC resurrected its H1N1 telebriefing for reporters this afternoon.

Agency officials said there were nine more pediatric H1N1 deaths reported in the last week. Some of those were new cases, some were older cases only now getting counted. While the CDC says the virus has "leveled off," for three straight weeks pneumonia and flu deaths have been above epidemic threshold levels. "People are being hospitalized and they're dying," Dr. Anne Schuchat, Director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said.

When H1N1 fears were running high everyone was complaining that there wasn't enough vaccine to go around. Of course, now that the situation has abated somewhat, there's plenty of vaccine available from GSK, Novartis, Sanofi-Aventis and AstraZeneca. According to the CDC, 124 million doses have been shipped and there's much more to come. Officials repeatedly cautioned on the media call that people shouldn't be lulled into a sense of complacency. "This pandemic isn't over yet," Dr. Schuchat said.

Wall Street certainly seems to think that the danger, or at least the hype, has passed. Once again, just like they did during the H5N1 scare several years ago, flu-related stocks like BioCryst, Novavax and Crucell, just to name a few, went up and have come back down. Unless or until the fever rises again.


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