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Yeah, We’ve Got A Vaccine For That

Wed, 11/18/2009 - 5:07am
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November 18, 2009

 

Linda A. Johnson, AP

Malaria. Tuberculosis. Alzheimer's disease. AIDS. Pandemic flu. Genital herpes. Urinary tract infections. Grass allergies. Traveler's diarrhea. You name it, the pharmaceutical industry is working on a vaccine to prevent it, and many could be on the market in five years or less.

Contrast that with five years ago, when so many companies had abandoned the vaccine business that half the U.S. supply of flu shots was lost because of contamination at one of the two remaining manufacturers.

Vaccines are no longer a sleepy, low-profit niche in a booming drug industry. Today, they're starting to give ailing pharmaceutical makers a shot in the arm. The lure of big profits, advances in technology and growing government support has been drawing in new companies, from nascent biotechs to Johnson & Johnson. That means recent remarkable strides in overcoming dreaded diseases and annoying afflictions likely will continue.

“Even if a small portion of everything that's going on now is successful in the next 10 years, you put that together with the last 10 years (and) it's going to be characterized as a golden era,” says Emilio Emini, Pfizer Inc.'s head of vaccine research. Vaccines now are viewed as a crucial path to growth, as drug makers look for ways to bolster slowing prescription medicine sales amid intensifying generic competition and government pressure to cut costs under the federal health overhaul.

Investment in partnerships and other deals to develop and manufacture vaccines has been on a tear — and accelerating since the swine flu pandemic began. Billions in government grants are bringing better, faster ways to develop and manufacture vaccines. Rising worldwide emphasis on preventive health care, plus the advent of the first multibillion-dollar vaccines, have further boosted their appeal.

While prescription drug sales are forecast to rise by a third in five years, vaccine sales should double, from $19 billion last year to $39 billion in 2013, according to market research firm Kalorama Information. That's five times the $8 billion in vaccine sales in 2004.

Better technology to create and mass produce vaccines is bringing progress in preventing tropical dengue fever and new threats like superbugs MRSA and C. difficile, even ending addiction to cocaine and nicotine. Success on some vaccines in development, particularly for Alzheimer's and AIDS, likely would bring billions a year in sales.

Just this fall and early next year, the swine flu vaccines are expected to bring their makers at least a couple billion extra dollars. That's despite the five manufacturers for the U.S. not being able to meet an optimistic plan to first make seasonal flu shots and then produce 120 million doses of swine flu vaccine by mid-October.

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