GlaxoSmithKline: H1N1 hype unfounded as UK caps vaccine order
The UK government has capped its order of the H1N1 vaccine from GlaxoSmithKline. Following poor uptake of the vaccine in several European markets, the UK Department of Health has opted to limit its H1N1 contract with GlaxoSmithKline to 34.8 million doses. Despite the media hype surrounding the influenza outbreak, the mild course of the pandemic and negative public opinion of the vaccine means that its commercial impact will be significantly reduced.
The UK government's restriction of its order at 34.8 million doses includes those already received. As part of the deal with GlaxoSmithKline, the government will purchase the H5N1 vaccine against bird flu and replace the antiviral stocks of Relenza (zanamivir) that were used during the outbreak.
The influenza A (H1N1) pandemic began in Mexico, where the first cases of an influenza-like illness of unknown origin were reported in mid-March 2009. The infection spread throughout Mexico and the US in the following weeks. Initially, H1N1 seemed to be associated with a high fatality rate and a sufficient supply of H1N1 vaccine became a key concern for governments and health authorities. Consequently, most countries, including the seven major markets, invested huge amounts in vaccine supply contracts.
Public awareness campaigns, press coverage of H1N1 and a fear of a 1918 or H5N1-like influenza pandemic created political pressure and further contributed to the stockpiling of vaccines by respective governments. This translated into a large commercial windfall for the major flu vaccine players, namely GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi Pasteur and Novartis. In 2009, their combined pandemic flu sales amounted to $3 billion.
The cap in the vaccine order by the UK government is the result of several factors. Initial fears of a clinically severe pandemic have subsided over recent months, and despite the rapid spread of the virus, the course of disease has been mild to moderate in most patients. Furthermore, vaccine uptake has been limited, particularly in Europe, and governments have tried to re-negotiate with manufacturers in order to cut back on the supplies that were initially ordered.
This appears to have been a less of an issue in the US, where coverage amounted to approximately 25% of the total population. Across Europe, however, coverage rates have been less than 10%; in the UK, it is estimated that only 5.5 million doses of H1N1 vaccine were used. One explanation for this may be the use of new technologies such as adjuvants in manufacturing the H1N1 vaccine for the European markets. The lack of long-term safety data for such technologies has led to a negative public opinion, and therefore poor uptake.
Thus, despite the hype surrounding the H1N1 pandemic, its commercial impact for the major vaccines players will be significantly lower than expected. Additionally, the poor uptake of the vaccine has also resulted in losses for those governments which invested substantial amounts in supply contracts.
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