MedImmune Inc. said yesterday that it is evaluating whether it can help stem a threatened flu vaccination shortage by producing more doses of its inhaled vaccine FluMist after a request from federal officials.
The Gaithersburg company, coming off a disastrous launch of FluMist last year, had said it would make only 1 million to 2 million doses for this flu season after selling fewer than 500,000 doses last year.
Q How is FluMist different from a flu shot?
AFluMist is a spray inhaled through the nose. It is also different from the flu shot in that it contains weakened live influenza viruses instead of killed viruses.
Does FluMist protect against the same kind of flu?
FluMist and flu shots both contain strains of influenza viruses that are matched to protect against strains that experts expect to circulate that year. Viruses for both vaccines are grown in eggs.
What is the difference in cost and availability?
While there are almost 50 million flu shots coming to market, the maker of FluMist said it prepared for 1 million to 2 million doses to be available this season. Giant Food pharmacies are charging $20 for the shot and expect to charge $30 for FluMist.
SOURCES: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, Post staff
But the company said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked it yesterday whether it could increase FluMist production. The request came hours after Chiron Corp. announced that a dispute with British authorities over alleged contamination would block its shipment of 48 million flu shots, almost half the expected supply for the United States.
MedImmune spokeswoman Jamie Lacey said an evaluation of the request was underway but cautioned that producing more doses would be difficult because the process of making FluMist, which involves growing live strains of the virus in eggs, can take up to a year.
The possible increase in demand in light of Chiron's problems represents a "weird irony," for MedImmune, said Elise Wang, a Smith Barney Citigroup analyst. "Now they have this opportunity that they can't meet because they couldn't have expected that they would have this demand," she said.
The CDC said the 54 million doses of conventional flu vaccine expected from Aventis Pasteur, the world's leading supplier, would be enough if healthy adults skip the shots this flu season and save them for the people most vulnerable to effects of the flu, including children ages 6 to 23 months, the elderly and those with chronic illnesses.
On the other hand, FluMist is approved for use only in healthy people ages 5 to 49. That limitation proved a big disadvantage in marketing FluMist last year, Wang said, but may turn into a small advantage this year.
"What this means is that MedImmune will probably sell more than they did last year," Wang said. "But they can only become profitable on this if they get to 4 to 5 million doses. I don't think they can make that many right now for this vaccine season."
Gigi El-Bayoumi, a primary-care physician with George Washington University Medical Center, said she was one of the many doctors who didn't use FluMist on her patients last year, despite a $25 million marketing effort by MedImmune and Wyeth, MedImmune's corporate partner at the time.
"What we have is what we are comfortable with," El-Bayoumi said of the conventional flu shot.
This year, she said, "FluMist is definitely going to be used," though possibly not by her. El-Bayoumi said she did not know whether the hospital would order FluMist. "We're waiting on guidance from the CDC," she said.
Pharmacies at Giant Food in Virginia will begin carrying FluMist in a couple of weeks, according to Giant spokesman Barry F. Scher. Efforts are also underway to carry FluMist in Maryland and District stores. A typical flu shot costs $20, Scher said. FluMist will likely cost $30.
MedImmune chief executive David M. Mott has called last year's debut of FluMist "a debacle of the first order." In addition to its higher price and the limits on who could receive the vaccine, doctors had to keep it frozen until use.
This year, the company decreased the price while working to convince doctors that the vaccine is a better alternative to the flu shot for many patients. MedImmune also is working to launch a version of FluMist that could be administered more broadly in 2007.
MedImmune stock traded for $34.47 a share last September, as the flu season began. It was down to $23.27 last month.
But on news of the potential shortage, it rose yesterday, closing at $25.78, up $1.41, or 5.8 percent.