Ailing sales again for FluMist

Though flu season is not over, a report by one Wall Street analyst suggests sales of FluMist, the nasal spray flu vaccine made by Gaithersburg-based MedImmune Inc., will again be dismal this year.

Survey results released this week by the New York investment house Lazard Freres & Co. estimate that about 1 million doses of FluMist have been sold by doctors and pharmacies this season. That is a third of the 3 million doses produced at the urging of public health officials. The officials feared a flu epidemic after flu vaccine-producer Chiron Corp. announced in October that the United States would only get half its expected dosage of shots because of contamination of the supply.

A weak flu season, age restrictions on who could take the inhaled vaccine and a misconception that the nasal spray was running short caused FluMist not to be sold as much, said Hamed Khorsand, an analyst who follows MedImmune for BWS Financial in California: "Hindsight is always 20/20. You never know how the flu season is going to turn out to be."

This was the second winter that FluMist has been on the market. The Food and Drug Administration has approved it for people between the ages of 5 and 49 - a segment less threatened by the flu than infants and the elderly.

In 2003, the first year FluMist hit the market, MedImmune made between 4 million and 5 million doses, but sold only 450,000 during the winter of 2003-2004.

The company adjusted production this season and planned to produce only about 1 million doses. It also lowered the price to about $23 from $41 to spur demand. An additional 2 million doses were made at the request of the Department of Health and Human Services this fall after the Chiron news broke and led people, especially seniors, to endure long lines at clinics and elsewhere for hard-to-get flu shots.

"In terms of the Lazard report, we don't comment on analyst reports or speculation," MedImmune spokeswoman Jamie P. Lacey said yesterday.

She said the company didn't expect FluMist sales to affect the company's bottom line this year, anyway. The company derives most of its revenue from sales of Synagis, a treatment for respiratory infection in infants. In the first three quarters of 2004, Synagis sales totaled nearly $539 million - about 80 percent of MedImmune's $675 million revenue for that span.

MedImmune will release its FluMist sales numbers Feb. 3 when it makes its year-end earnings announcement, she said.

"This year was really about education and getting back to the basics, helping the health care community to understand the benefits," Lacey said.

"FluMist, because it's a unique product, has taken [media] precedence over everything else MedImmune has on the market," Khorsand said. "But it means very little to revenue at this moment compared to their other products."

FluMist is the first nasal spray vaccine to gain U.S. approval and among the first flu vaccine advances in about 50 years, Lacey said. It was expected to be a blockbuster drug when it was approved in June 2003, but some analysts have said poor marketing led to its disappointing performance.

MedImmune expects to roll out a second generation of FluMist - called CAIV-T - within two years. Unlike the current version, the new one does not have to be frozen, making it easier for the medical community to store and administer.

"We're also not through with this season," Lacey added. "Flu often doesn't peak until February. The season is still under way."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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