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Monday, September 26, 2005

A bird flu vaccine, the pharmaceuticals' holy grail

This story is from TODAYonline

The discovery of a human vaccine against bird flu would not only mean a financial jackpot for the pharmaceutical company which won the race, but also a much needed boost for the industry's reputation.

As fears grow of a global pandemic, the world market for flu vaccines is in turmoil. The handful of companies which monopolise it are investing at full throttle, and in recent weeks have been stepping up their acquisitions to take advantage of the market.

Currently, vaccines make up only two percent of global pharmaceutical sales, but industry insiders are banking on a threefold increase in the market over the next six years, without putting a precise figure on the value of a human bird flu vaccine.

Already, Sanofi-Pasteur, a subsidiary of world number three Sanofi-Aventis, has pocketed 100 million dollars (82 million euros) from a United States government contract to produce "pre-pandemic" vaccines by the end of October.

These will target the current strain of the avian flu virus, H5N1, which has killed more than 60 people in Asia, before the firm begins work on a vaccine against a feared mutation of that virus which could strike down millions.

The French group will also invest 150 million dollars (123 million euros) to double the production capacity of its US factory in Pennsylvania for 2008-2009.

Meanwhile British drug giant GlaxoSmithKline, which already produces the antiviral drug Relenza and flu vaccine Fluarix, bought Canadian firm ID Biomedical specialising in flu vaccines for more than one billion euros (1.2 billion dollars) at the start of September.

And Switzerland's Novartis wants to buy out California's Chiron, the world number two vaccine producer, in which it already holds a 42.2 percent stake, for 4.5 billion dollars (3.7 billion euros).

This excitement in the vaccine sector is a novelty for the pharmaceutical industry.

"Vaccines have always played a separate role in firms. They have always been a little overlooked and thought of as being something for Africa, a public health issue, areas which are not lucrative" compared to star drugs that boost sales figures, Claude Le Pen, professor of health economics at Paris-Dauphine University, told AFP.

But today's likelihood of a pandemic "validates those companies which have kept vaccines in their portfolio", such as Sanofi-Aventis and GlaxoSmithKline, he says.

Such firms seem aware of the moral as well as economic benefits of a future vaccine, for an industry "always accused of making a profit from disease with star drugs", commented Etienne Barral, an industrial development expert with the United Nations.

"We are on the right track economically speaking, and we are also right in terms of values and the sense that we are contributing to our profession," Christian Lajoux, the French director of Sanofi-Aventis, told AFP.

"The financial rewards from a vaccine would obviously be considerable. But it would above all be a spectacular turnaround for the industry, which has a terrible public image," said Le Pen.

"The pharmaceutical sector could then clear its name in the eyes of the public and say: 'you criticise us, but when there is a pandemic, you are happy we are there.'"

Posted by Becca

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