Wyeth Pharmaceuticals doesn't make flu shots anymore, and it doesn't miss them one bit.
For two decades, Wyeth made injectable influenza vaccine at a plant in Marietta, Pa. For the winter of 2002-03, it made 21 million doses in a labor-intensive, time-crunched process and shipped them to clinics and doctors' offices early in the fall.
For two decades, Wyeth made injectable influenza vaccine at this plant in Marietta, Pa., which it eventually closed.
(Kalim A. Bhatti -- The Philadelphia Inquirer)
But it turned out a lot fewer people wanted it. Flu vaccine can't be saved from year to year. So, sometime the next spring Wyeth threw away 7 million unsold doses, for a loss of $30 million. It then quit making flu shots. It eventually closed the Marietta plant, which once employed 800 people.
But Wyeth wasn't out of the flu vaccine business -- yet.
It was a partner with the Maryland biotech company, MedImmune, in making what they considered the flu shot of the future -- a "live" virus vaccine squirted up the nose. They made 5 million doses of FluMist for last winter, the product's inaugural season. But FluMist never found its market. Only 450,000 doses were sold; the rest were thrown away.
Last April, Wyeth pulled out. It was done with flu vaccine.
Wyeth's decisions go a long way toward explaining why the United States -- the world's richest market for medical products -- finds itself with only half the amount of vaccine it needs to protect its population against a disease that may contribute to more than 50,000 deaths this year.
The company's exit is part of a long, slow industry-wide flight away from flu vaccine, which has simply become more trouble than it's worth.
"It shouldn't be surprising to anybody," said Gregory A. Poland, director of the vaccine research group at the Mayo Clinic, in Minnesota. "In fact, I marvel that there are companies willing to stay in the business."
Even under the best circumstances, vaccines have never been very attractive investments. The global market for them is about $6 billion a year, compared with $340 billion for drugs. Thirty years ago, more than a dozen companies made flu shots. Five years ago, the number was down to four.