After rocky flu season, vaccinemakers may want to follow Novartis' lead

Heading into this year's flu season, vaccinemakers were hoping to follow up the top-line success they scored last year with quadrivalent rollouts. But with this year's vaccines registering a paltry 23% effectiveness rate this season thanks to a mutated strain, it might be time to make some changes.

Scientists and companies are reexamining all aspects of the flu vaccine, from production to distribution to the way it goes after the virus, Bloomberg reports. In particular, the 6-month traditional chicken egg manufacturing process forces companies like GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and Sanofi ($SNY) to make decisions and formulate a vaccine for the following season in February of each year, well in advance of when it will be used.

"If we can deliver 140 million doses to our network of pharmacies and clinics and all the healthcare providers, we could probably wait until May or June to make a decision," Ruben Donis, associate director for policy, evaluation and preparedness in the CDC's influenza division, told the news service. "But that's impossible the way things are now."

That's not to say there aren't alternative processes out there already. Both Novartis ($NVS)--whose flu vaccines business is on its way to Australia's CSL after an October 2014 deal--and Protein Sciences market cell-culture vaccines in the U.S. that take just weeks to produce, Bloomberg notes.

But those flu blockers hold just a small corner of the market, and the egg method will likely remain the norm until vaccinemakers and buyers come around on the new technology. "We've been doing this for 40-plus years and it has never failed us," David Greenberg, Sanofi Pasteur's chief medical officer, told Bloomberg. "There's a lot to be said for a system that has never failed. If you're going to change, you have to make sure it is as reliable."

In the meantime, though, companies may not get a repeat of the stellar top-line results they charted last flu season, when new quadrivalent launches sent sales soaring. In 2013's fourth quarter, flu vaccine hauls jumped 56% at AstraZeneca ($AZN), 76% at GSK and 94% at Sanofi thanks to the new four-strain flu-fighters. But increases like that seem unlikely this season with the vaccines' poor protection rates, despite the CDC recommending vaccination anyway.

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