Sales soar: Scare revives FluMist health

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A product viewed just weeks ago as one of the biggest flops of the year is now hotly in demand thanks to the media-fueled public panic over the flu outbreak.

The run on flu shots that caused a nationwide shortage appears to have at least temporarily resuscitated the fortunes of FluMist, a nasal-spray vaccine co-marketed by Wyeth and MedImmune. Because of its high cost and limited indication for use, many doctors and patients shunned the product. But FluMist got an enormous boost when the Centers for Disease Control publicly recommended it as an alternative for a flu shot. Two major insurers, Aetna and Cigna, added implied endorsements when they reversed previous stances and decided to cover FluMist for the current flu season. The result was a publicist's dream-promotion of the product on TV morning news shows and in many newspapers, including The New York Times.

Wyeth would not quantify an increase in sales activity for FluMist but anecdotal evidence indicated a significant rise in sales. Philip Nadeau, an analyst with SG Cowen & Co., New York, expects 2 million to 3 million doses of FluMist to be sold in the coming weeks-up from only 100,000 to date. A spokesman for Giant Food, which stocks FluMist in some supermarket pharmacies, said sales of the product tripled during the week that began Dec. 1 at its 33 Virginia and Maryland stores.

increased spending?

Executives close to the situation expect Wyeth to seize the opportunity by bumping up spending and possibly tweaking creative for its $50 million campaign, from Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi, New York. "There's still a few weeks left in the flu season," one executive said, "so I would imagine there will be some activity on this campaign."

Saatchi referred calls to Wyeth and MedImmune. A Wyeth spokesman said that while sales of FluMist have increased, the company "has no plans at this time" to alter its advertising.

FluMist, introduced in June, is the first nasal flu vaccine approved by the Food and Drug Administration. But its introduction was rocky. FluMist sold for $46 a vaccine to doctors, bumping up the patient cost to $55 to $60, about three times the cost of a flu shot. The nasal vaccine also was not FDA-approved for children under 5 or adults over 50, the groups most susceptible to the flu.

Because of its slow start, FluMist shouldn't face shortfalls. Some 3.9 million of its original batch of 4 million doses remain. And a $25 mail-in rebate offered at its Web site makes the vaccine more affordable.

FluMist's revival could be short-lived. Mr. Nadeau and other analysts said they expect flu shots will still be the more popular option next year, and that the biggest manufacturers of those, Chiron Corp. and Aventis Pasteur, will make more to avoid running out during the peak season.

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