This year's U.S. flu season has created shortages of the Tamiflu treatment for children and of the most widely used flu vaccine, their manufacturers said.
Roche Holding AG told Reuters late on Wednesday that it had a shortage of the liquid form of Tamiflu, given to children who already have the flu to slow or stop symptoms. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration confirmed that there have been supply interruptions in some locations.
Roche said it told wholesalers and distributors in recent weeks that temporary delays in shipments were imminent. In the meantime, pharmacists can make a substitute by dissolving Tamiflu capsules in a sweet liquid, according to Tara Iannuccillo, spokeswoman for Roche's Genentech unit, which makes Tamiflu.
Sanofi SA, the largest flu vaccine provider in the United States, said on Thursday it had sold out of four of the six different dosages of Fluzone seasonal flu vaccine due to unanticipated late-season demand. The vaccine is made in different sized vials and pre-filled syringes.
"At this point we are not able to make any more vaccine because we are gearing up for next year's vaccine," said Michael Szumera, a spokesman for Sanofi.
Most of the United States is nearing peak levels seen during moderately severe flu seasons, according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. As of last Friday, the percentage of people seeing health care providers for influenza had increased for the previous four consecutive weeks to 5.6 percent. That compares with 2.2 percent the previous year, when flu was mild.
"We are hearing of spot shortages. Given the time in our flu season, it isn't surprising. People who haven't been vaccinated and want to get the vaccine may have to look in several places for it," CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said on Thursday.
It is not unusual to run out mid-season during a moderate to severe season, which is what this year looks like, he said.
It is definitely not too late to receive the seasonal flu vaccine, said epidemiologist Craig Roberts, a physician assistant at University Health Services at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The 42,000-student campus gave 10,000 flu shots before the holiday break in December and has 5,000 more in stock. "We'll be offering walk-in shots" once the students return around January 22, he said, "which we haven't done in January before. We also sent out a mass e-mail asking students to get the shot at home if they can."
The vaccines that are available this year are a fairly good match to the strains of the flu that are circulating, Skinner said. It takes about two weeks for the vaccines to provide protection.
Manufacturers planned to produce 137 million doses of the vaccine and as of late last year, 112 million people had been vaccinated, the CDC said.
Sanofi produced 60 million of those doses and GlaxoSmithKline PLC had planned to make 25 million doses.
A spokesman for GlaxoSmithKline said on Thursday it expected to have the vaccine available until mid-February.
Novartis, AstraZeneca Plc, ID Biomedical Corp of Quebec and CSL Biotherapies are also authorized to sell flu vaccines in the United States. ID Biomedical's product is distributed by Glaxo, while Merck & Co distributes the CSL Biotherapies vaccine.
AstraZeneca's MedImmune unit sells FluMist, an intranasal spray approved for people aged 2 to 49. Tara Mullins, an outside spokesperson for MedImmune, declined to provide details about demand for and available supply of FluMist.
Karen Andersen, an analyst with Morningstar, said Tamiflu sales would likely more than double to about $750 million this year from about $350 million in the 2011-2012 flu season. Tamiflu demand could boost overall Roche revenue this year by about 1 percent, but she said that would be a "small positive impact" for the company.
Tamiflu sales peaked at $3 billion in 2009, when governments stockpiled the product in case of a global epidemic of avian flu that never materialized.
WALGREENS FLU SHOTS UP
Walgreen Co, which provides flu shots in some of its pharmacy locations, said on Wednesday it had given 5.7 million doses so far this flu season, up from 5.3 million a year ago.
"We've kept our reimbursement rates the same, so we are making a consistent level of profitability on flu shots," Walgreens President of Pharmacy, Health and Wellness Kermit Crawford said after the company's annual shareholder meeting in Chicago. Walgreens is the largest distributor of flu vaccines in the United States other than the government.
Walgreens is reimbursed by health insurers such as UnitedHealth Group, Wellpoint Inc. and Aetna Inc., whose profitability can be hurt by the flu because of reimbursements to pharmacies, doctors and other providers for vaccines and treatments.
One small insurer, Centene Corp., in December cut back on its earnings estimates for 2012 because its managed care business in Texas and Kentucky, where the flu was active early in the season, had increased its medical costs.
Aetna said this week it has seen a spike in flu cases this year but it is not resulting in more inpatient admissions and it is budgeting about $40 million to $50 million for a normal flu season. That compares with $100 million it spent during the flu season in 2009.
"We don't see this flu season, even at its worst, getting close to that number," Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini said during Tuesday's J.P. Morgan Healthcare conference in San Francisco.
Jason Gurda, an analyst at Leerink-Swann in healthcare equity research, said in a research report this week that 2,255 flu-related hospitalizations have been reported since Oct. 1, 2012, up 735 from the previous week but below the 6,896 hospitalizations in the 2009-2010 season.
He said that could have a "modestly positive impact" on first-quarter volumes for hospitals and said that many companies, including HCA Holdings and Tenet Healthcare, had hospitals in the states most affected so far.