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How U.S. Got Down to Two Makers Of Flu Vaccine

By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 17, 2004; Page A01

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)

_____Influenza_____

Q. What is the flu?
A.
A viral respiratory infection. Symptoms include headaches, dry cough, muscle aches and fatigue, and possible congestion, sore throat and fever.
spacer spacer Q. How do you treat the flu?
A.
Rest, drink plenty of fluids and avoid alcohol and tobacco. Since the flu is a virus, antibiotics can't cure it.
spacer spacer Q. Who should get a flu vaccine?
A.
People older than 65, children 6 to 23 months old, pregnant women and adults or children with chronic health conditions are at greater risk for severe illness.
From The Post: Flu Q & A
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_____On the Web_____
Flu Vaccine Locator
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Global Influenza Surveillance

_____Flu News_____
Officials Struggle With Flu Strategy (The Washington Post, Oct 19, 2004)
In Dark of Night, a Faint Hope Of Finally Getting a Flu Shot (The Washington Post, Oct 19, 2004)
What Now? (The Washington Post, Oct 19, 2004)
Seniors Urged Not to Panic for Vaccine (Associated Press, Oct 18, 2004)
More Flu News
_____Biotech Headlines_____
2-Fingerprint Border ID System Called Inadequate (The Washington Post, Oct 19, 2004)
Painful Withdrawal for Makers of Vioxx (The Washington Post, Oct 18, 2004)
Kerry Ad Says Flu Vaccine Shortage Is Typical of Bush's Policy Blunders (The Washington Post, Oct 17, 2004)
More Biotech News

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.


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