MedImmune loses big client for FluMist

1,000 Wal-Mart stores won't carry nasal vaccine

Setback for hot new product

Big retailer raises issue of who administers drug

October 18, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

How would you like to take your flu vaccine: a needle to the arm or a quick spray up the nose?

MedImmune Inc. is banking on the latter as it rolls out FluMist, the first nasal vaccine of any kind to go to market in the United States.

With Food and Drug Administration approval, MedImmune recently began a $25 million advertising campaign to make sure as many people as possible hear about the vaccine before the impending flu season, from Survivor viewers to Newsweek readers.

But the Gaithersburg company faces hurdles as it enters the potentially lucrative market of flu-fighting.

MedImmune must convince people that it's worth paying three times as much to avoid an injection. Its product is approved for ages 5 through 49, eliminating the elderly, a traditional target group.

And yesterday it announced that Wal-Mart has scrapped its plans to sell FluMist in 1,000 of its nearly 3,000 stores this year. The chain has blamed technical difficulties, including issues of how it is to be administered.

The pharmacy boards of several states have questioned the legal ability of a pharmacist to administer the drug or raised concerns about the amount of training needed, said Danette Thompson, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman.

"It's not the product that's being questioned. It has nothing to do with safety or efficacy," she said. "We are disappointed, but ... we're still thinking about and evaluating future participation."

It's a disappointment for MedImmune, too, not to mention its investors. The company's stock price fell 6.1 percent yesterday, to $28.18 a share, on the news that the nation's largest retailer had backed out.

Hamed Khorsand, an analyst for BWS Financial, based outside Los Angeles, sees that as a minor challenge for the company overall. He still expects FluMist will meet its original target of $120 million to $140 million in revenue this year.

"The profit margin will be a lot less than we had estimated before," Khorsand said. "But I think the product will be a success this year. ... There's a sense consumers will want to be using this product."

Jamie Lacey, spokeswoman for MedImmune, said the vaccine is available at more than 14,000 stores, doctors' offices and hospitals nationwide. Safeway, Kroger and Virginia-based Ukrop's supermarkets are among the supermarkets offering FluMist, at least in states that allow pharmacists to administer vaccines. (The others could bring in a nurse for scheduled vaccines.)

MedImmune's home state is not on the list. The Maryland Board of Pharmacy has been lobbying the state legislature for several years to change the rules and is hopeful that will happen in the next session.

"Last I saw, there's 34 states that allowed it, and we're one of the 16 that do not," said Melvin Rubin, a commissioner on the state board.

He figures that FluMist's initial potential is dampened by the age limit and the price difference. Most people getting flu vaccinations are elderly, he said. The shot costs about $20, while a FluMist dose - which is sold to doctors and pharmacies for $46 - can cost at least $60 retail.

Eventually, the price will come down and the FDA will approve it for more people if history is any measure, Rubin said. Then, he said, the sky's the limit.

"Everybody would rather take a nasal spray than a shot," he said.

Dr. James King, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, is a huge fan of the spray. He was involved in the original National Institutes of Health studies in the 1980s, before the biotech company Aviron picked up on the vaccine. MedImmune bought that company last year.

"I don't know if you've seen a 6-year-old going to a doctor's office knowing they're going to get a shot. They're terrified," King said. "A lot of adults are the same way."

He'll be giving FluMist to healthy and willing pupils at Elmer A. Wolfe Elementary School in Carroll County the first week of next month to see how effective it is in cutting absenteeism - not just missed school days but missed work days among the children's parents.

"There's probably no other virus that has as much impact in the United States as flu," King said.

Seventeen million to 50 million Americans catch it each year. More than 100,000 are hospitalized, and about 36,000 die, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

People can find places offering FluMist, including doctors' offices and other outlets, at www.flumist.com.

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