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Published: Monday, 1/18/2010

Unused swine flu vaccine is piling up

BLOOMBERG

LONDON - The influenza pandemic that swept the globe and fueled concern that millions of people would die has resulted in an unprecedented glut of vaccine because unexpectedly few people have sought immunization.

Sagging demand has left governments worldwide with surpluses of swine flu vaccine. Many are now selling or donating the excess or slashing pending orders. The biggest vaccine makers - GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi-Aventis, Baxter International, Novartis, and CSL Ltd. - are seeing a potential $7.6 billion sales windfall shrink, analysts said.

The first flu pandemic in 40 years prompted a worldwide scramble in 2009 to secure supplies of vaccine against the H1N1 virus. When the disease turned out to be milder than predicted, people already wary about the shot's safety and possible side effects hesitated to get inoculated, and demand declined.

"I'm very sad that we spent the money like this, very inefficiently," said Wolfgang Wodarg, a doctor who served in Germany's Parliament until September and now is on the Council of Europe. "The governments could have put more questions forth."

The council was set up in 1949 to promote democracy and human rights and is based in Strasbourg, France. It will debate Mr. Wodarg's proposed resolution on Jan. 28 that governments made unnecessary vaccine purchases after drugmakers, seeking to boost sales, influenced them.

Claire Brough, a spokesman for London-based Glaxo, said the allegation was "without warrant." Pascal Barollier, a spokesman for Sanofi, said, "These discussions have always been in a framework of working together, to ensure transparency and to ensure that there was no conflict of interest."

French Socialist party spokesman Benoit Hamon and Democratic Movement head Francois Bayrou criticized Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy's government for spending millions of euros on vaccines that will not be used.

Government officials and the World Health Organization say it was impossible to predict the course of the virus months ago when decisions about how much vaccine to buy were made.

"The orders were decided in May and June, a moment of real uncertainty," Didier Houssin, director general of health in France, said last month. "We were working under the possibility it could require two shots a person."

Public-health experts also warned against dismissing the threat from the virus, saying it may return in a stronger form this year or in coming flu seasons.

"We are not out of the woods yet with this virus, and it will be rather foolish for everyone to say, 'That's it,'•" said John Oxford, professor of virology at Queen Mary's School of Medicine and Dentistry in London. "It may not be it."

About 13,000 deaths worldwide from swine flu have been confirmed since it was first identified in Mexico and the United States in April, the WHO said last week. The figure includes 1,045 deaths in Europe, according to the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Stockholm, and about 10,000 in the United States, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Dec. 10. Seasonal influenza kills as many as 500,000 people around the world annually, according to the WHO.

There were at least four deaths reported in northwest Ohio from complications of the H1N1 virus.

Most large European countries have protected no more than 10 percent of their populations against the pandemic virus after ordering enough vaccine for most or all of their residents. One shot is required for most people, instead of the two doses expected when most orders were placed.

Almost all Americans who want the vaccine can now obtain it, and the U.S. government is running newspaper advertisements urging them to do so.

Analysts at Morgan Stanley had predicted $3.6 billion in revenue from swine flu for Glaxo in the last quarter of 2009 and the first three months of 2010, $600 million for Novartis, and $1.1 billion for Sanofi. Actual sales may be as much as 15 percent lower, Morgan Stanley said last month.



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