FluMist maker to raise output

MedImmune is planning million more vaccine doses

Nasal spray may ease shortage

October 08, 2004|By William Patalon III | William Patalon III,SUN STAFF

With the U.S. military considering major orders of FluMist influenza vaccine and insurers almost certain to authorize coverage of the pricey drug, MedImmune Inc. said yesterday that it will make another 1 million doses of its nasal-spray vaccine to help ease a severe flu-shot shortage.

"We intend to do all we can do," said Dr. James F. Young, MedImmune's president of research and development.

The Gaithersburg drugmaker also said the 1.1 million FluMist doses it has ready for distribution have been released for shipment by the Food and Drug Administration. The company has enough frozen bulk vaccine to fill an additional 1 million nasal spray doses.

Young said the company decided to process the additional doses after evaluating the situation and discussions with health authorities. The additional vaccine doses could reach the market by late November, in plenty of time to inoculate recipients against the flu, he said.

FOR THE RECORD - An article about MedImmune Inc.'s FluMist in yesterday's Business section reported the nasal spray influenza vaccine's wholesale price is $23.50 per dose. That is the price for FluMist that can be returned if it is not sold. The price for nonreturnable FluMist is $16 per dose.
The Sun regrets the error.

A sellout of the more than 2 million doses would represent an unexpected - and welcome - rebound for FluMist after a disastrous debut last year, when only about 10 percent of the 4 million doses produced were sold.

MedImmune had anticipated a similar level of sales this flu season. But that outlook changed abruptly Tuesday when British authorities suspended the license of Chiron Corp.'s Liverpool vaccine plant because of manufacturing problems.

The move slashed almost half the flu shot supply destined for the U.S. market this winter.

MedImmune produces the bulk vaccine in the same Liverpool facility, but in a separate part and under its control, Young said. The British authorities' action did not affect MedImmune, which packages the vaccine at its Philadelphia plant.

It's the second straight year flu shots will be in short supply: Influenza last year struck several weeks earlier than expected and then proved exceptionally virulent, causing rolling shortages of flu shots around the country.

But the severity of this year's shortage substantially boosts the opportunity for FluMist.

With roughly half a million troops deployed abroad - all of whom typically are inoculated against the flu - the U.S. military could be a major force behind FluMist sales this winter.

The Department of Defense had contracted to buy almost 3.8 million doses of influenza vaccines this year, with 70 percent of those from Chiron. The other 30 percent was purchased from Aventis Pasteur, the only other firm that produces flu shots for the United States, military procurement officials said yesterday.

In addition to contacting Aventis to see if it can get additional shots, Defense officials are looking at FluMist as an alternative, said Tom Daley, director of the pharmaceutical group for the Defense Supply Center in Philadelphia, which handles all medical-supply procurement for the armed services.

"FluMist is a definite possibility," Daley said. "We hope we can get our hands on some."

Company officials declined yesterday to comment on any contacts with the Defense Department.

Insurers also are re-evaluating their earlier decisions to not cover FluMist, which costs more than flu shots. The companies made the same decision at the start of last year's flu season, too - although almost all reversed that policy when the flu outbreak became so severe.

Aetna Inc., which has 13 million members nationwide, including more than 400,000 in Maryland, is likely to cover the cost of FluMist, though a final decision has not been made, a spokesman said yesterday.

"We are seriously looking at it," said the spokesman, Walt Cherniak. "We want to take the appropriate action with the best interests of our members" in mind.

The state's largest insurer, CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, which has 3.2 million members in Maryland, Delaware, Washington and Virginia, also is reviewing its policy not to cover FluMist, said Jeffrey Valentine, a spokesman. It expects to make a decision early next week, he said.

A lower price this year may help insurers make that switch. Last year, FluMist had a wholesale price of $46 per dose, and often cost consumers more. But MedImmune this year is selling FluMist at a wholesale cost of $23.50 a dose. Patients pay $10 to $15 for a regular flu shot.

Shares of MedImmune closed at $25.65 yesterday, up 6 cents.

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