MedImmune Inc. agreed to produce 3 million doses of its FluMist spray flu vaccine this season with the encouragement of federal health officials, but now it appears the company may sell only one-third that number of doses.
The estimate that the Gaithersburg company will sell about 1 million doses this year, released yesterday by investment bank Lazard Freres & Co., points to another in a string of setbacks the Gaithersburg company has faced in trying to persuade Americans to adopt a nasal spray alternative to the standard flu shot.
"It's really shocking," said Scott Gottlieb, a former senior policy adviser at the Food and Drug Administration who studies the vaccine market at the American Enterprise Institute. "It surprises me that they can't peddle 3 million doses. You've got to figure there were 3 million people who couldn't get the flu shot who would try to get FluMist."
Jamie Lacey, a MedImmune spokeswoman, declined to comment yesterday, saying the company does not comment on analysts' reports and will not detail sales figures until it announces its quarterly earnings.
The company launched FluMist last season with a $25 million ad campaign. But many doctors and patients balked at its price, and federal regulators did not allow the company to market the vaccine to children under age 5, a key market because it could spare children painful injections. Despite a particularly aggressive flu season, FluMist did not catch on with consumers.
After selling fewer than 500,000 of 4 million doses, MedImmune said it would produce only 1 million to 2 million doses for this flu season, and it cut the wholesale price from $46 to $23.50 a dose. But in October, Chiron Corp. announced that it couldn't ship nearly half of the U.S. flu shot supply because of manufacturing problems in England.
Federal health officials scrambled to find more vaccine, advising healthy people to avoid the flu shot and encouraging them to use FluMist.
The opportunity seemed a good one for MedImmune because its vaccine is approved only for healthy people ages 5 through 49. Later that month, chief executive David M. Mott met with Tommy G. Thompson, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. They announced that MedImmune would make 3 million FluMist doses available to help stem the shortage.
But the company appears to have sold far less because of a mild start to the flu season and waning demand for flu vaccinations, particularly among the healthy adults who can use FluMist.
Walter A. Orenstein, former director of the National Immunization Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the public may have been confused -- hearing the agency's message that healthy people should avoid flu shots but not its advice that they could turn to FluMist instead.