Record Number of Flu Vaccines to Be Made

Monday, July 26th 2004, 10:49 am
By: News On 6

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ In the heat of summer, the flu is probably the last thing on most minds. But July is when the nation's two main vaccine makers begin shipping shots to wholesalers, who in turn parcel them out to hospitals, clinics and doctors' offices nationwide. This year, health officials and shot producers vow not to run out as they did during last year's exceptionally early season start.

So this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans for the first time to stockpile 4 million vaccines for children and the two vaccine makers _ Chiron Corp. of Emeryville and Aventis Pasteur _ plan to make a combined 100 million doses. That's about 17 million more than were available last year.

On Friday, Chiron said it shipped 1 million doses to wholesalers as part of a production run that will ultimately yield 52 million shots this year, the most the company has produced in a single year.

Last year, the company made 38 million shots, accounting for about $230 million in revenue. That supply was quickly exhausted because the flu started in early October and quickly swept across the nation. By December, both makers had exhausted their supplies and many clinics ran out of shots before season's end.

``Last influenza season hit early and hit hard,'' said Howard Pien, Chiron's president and CEO.

A spokesman for Pennsylvania-based Aventis didn't return a telephone call Friday.

The CDC recommends that about 185 million Americans _ including the elderly, children, and people with weakened immune systems _ get flu shots each year. However, far fewer are actually vaccinated. Health officials expect a record number of people to request vaccinations this year owing to the publicity generated by last year's season and the subsequent shortage.

Vaccine manufacturing is a risky business _ much guesswork goes into which strains to protect against each year and how many doses to make.

Two years ago, three manufacturers made 95 million doses _ but only 80 million were used. The companies had to absorb the cost because the government doesn't pay for unused doses, prompting Wyeth to drop out of the business.

Based on the mild 2002-2003 flu season, the two remaining major manufacturers scaled back production last year and were unprepared for the surge in demand.

A third company, MedImmune Inc. of College Park, Md., produced a needle-free vaccine called FluMist last year, the first new vaccine on the market in 50 years. FluMist is squirted in the nose and the company had hoped it would be a popular alternative to the conventional vaccines, which are brewed in chicken eggs and delivered with a needle jab. But FluMist failed miserably, selling only 450,000 of 4 million doses it produced, and reported only $33 million in revenue.