- Business with disease: The scourge of prescription drugs (FCN, 01/26/2004)
- Influenza: What can you do to prevent it? (FCN, 02/09/2004)
(FinalCall.com) – A national shortage of flu vaccine is causing anxiety amongst New Yorkers, who have been crowding health clinics, swarming phone lines and engaging in angry confrontations with healthcare providers, according to reports in the New York Times and the Daily News.
“We’re in the middle of a crisis that could have been averted,” Dr. Irwin Redlener, associate dean of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and director of its National Center for Disaster Preparedness, told the New York Times.
The media reported during the first week of October that the Chiron Corporation, a California-based drug manufacturer, would not be able to meet its flu vaccine shot obligation of 48 million doses to the United States government.
The Emeryville, Calif. company, which would be subject to regulations by the government, operates a flu vaccine factory in England. But on October 5, British officials revoked the company’s license and closed down their operations because the plant was contaminated with bacteria. Chiron produces almost half of the U.S. flu vaccine.
“The media has created hysteria over the flu vaccine issue,” claims Dr. Abdul Alim Muhammad, National Minister of Health for the Nation of Islam. “The media reports that 35,000 people died last year from the flu, but what they don’t say is that most of those people died because of other types of medical complications that already existed. The public must first ask how important is the flu epidemic, and they would find that it pales against such illnesses as diabetes, cancer, heart disease and the HIV pandemic,” he stressed. He said the public must search for the “story behind the story” and then they must “follow the money.”
“I’m afraid that the public, in general, has blind faith in the government, when it comes to issues such as a flu vaccine shortage, and that is disappointing,” Dr. Lenny Roberts, a Philadelphia-based chiropractor, said during a telephone interview.
Dr. Roberts has scheduled a forum at his Ridge Avenue clinic, which is open to the public, to discuss the current flu vaccine crisis on October 27.
“There has to be a starting point for people to collect their own information on vaccines, and that is what I am hoping to provide at the forum,” he explained.
He challenges the media’s reporting of 35,000 deaths in 2003 due to the flu. “I would say it was more like 1,000 people who died because of direct complications from a flu strain,” he insisted. “Most of the people counted in that number of 35,000 had more serious medical problems, and the flu just happened to add to their medical issues, but was not the initial cause of death,” he contended.
He said he agreed that the current flu vaccine crisis was all about the money. “Follow the dollar and you find that flu vaccine sales weren’t very good, but when the news hit about Chiron, nasal flu mist sales doubled,” Dr. Roberts observed.
The Associated Press reported on October 11 that health experts told the wire service that drug companies had pulled out of flu vaccine production because it is financially risky and not very profitable. The AP was reporting on why the U.S. government had contracted with only two drug companies to produce the flu vaccine.
The embattled drug manufacturer Chiron reported a third-quarter profit of $23.5 million in its flu vaccine operation, despite losing $91 million because of the loss of its entire 2004-2005 flu shot inventory, according to CBSMarketWatch.com.
Profits and investments
According to news reports, the government is investing in the nasal-spray vaccine market. On October 21, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson announced that the government had secured one million additional doses of the nasal-spray vaccine, bringing its total inventory of vaccine doses to 61 million.
Financial analysts announced on October 6 that a Maryland-based drug manufacturer, MedImmune, was to provide three million doses of the FluMist which, according to the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), may only be given to healthy people, ages five to 49. According to USA Today, the drug is made with a “live weakened virus” and the FDA fears it could increase the risk of asthma attacks in young children. USAToday also reported that the Maryland company made four million doses in 2003, their first year in the nasal-spray business.
The Washington Post also reported on October 6 that MedImmune was “coming off a disastrous launch” of their FluMist product, selling fewer than 500,000 doses in 2003. The paper quoted a Washington physician who said that she, like many of her colleagues, did not use the FluMist, despite a $25 million marketing campaign, citing the high wholesale cost. According to an October 8 USAToday article, MedImmune sold the doses for $46 in 2003, but has now agreed to a wholesale price of $23.50.
The Washington Post reported that MedImmune stock rose on October 6 to $25.78 a share, up $1.41, or 5.8 percent. At the beginning of September, the company’s stock was $23.27 a share, down from $34.47 in September 2003.
Price gouging of the scarce flu vaccine has also raised its ugly head, according to news reports. On October 22, the California State Attorney’s office subpoenaed the records of three Southern California flu-shot distributors, as part of an investigation into possible price gouging by companies selling the flu doses. None of the companies were charged with any wrongdoing. However, sources close to the attorney general said pharmacy directors reported drug distributors offering to sell the vaccine at 10 times the usual price of $70-$80 for a 10-dose vial.
The attorney general in Texas alleged that a San Diego company and a Florida-based company offered the flu vaccine for as much as $950 a vial and demanded cash on delivery, according to Reuters, which also reported that Kansas officials sued another Florida company for allegedly trying to sell the flu vaccine in Kansa City, Kan. at inflated prices.