Flu pandemic a big boon--and a bit bust

Hard to believe, but the H1N1 "swine" flu pandemic only hit the public consciousness this past spring. That was when Mexico first announced it had toted up dozens of cases. And it wasn't till April 30 that the World Health Organization officially declared a pandemic. Of course, we've read so much by now about H1N1 and its "windfall" profits for makers of antivirals and vaccines that it's hard to remember just how much the spread of H1N1 changed Big Pharma's fortunes this year.

The pandemic forced the media--and the public--to focus on the positive side of the pharmaceuticals business for a change. The world waited on tenterhooks as vaccine makers developed a shot to ward off the H1N1 strain of flu, unsure at the time whether the pandemic virus would grow more virulent (it didn't) and whether it would, like most other flu pandemics, hit children, youth and young adults particularly hard (it did). And the world counted its blessings that antivirals such as GlaxoSmithKline's Relenza and Roche's Tamiflu were actually available, and that the companies could ramp up production quickly in an effort to meet demand. Headlines followed when intravenous versions saved some severely ill people--and were subsequently approved under emergency FDA measures.

Of course, there was a cloud around this silver lining; nothing is without its negative side. The seed strain of H1N1 proved difficult to grow at first, slowing down vaccine production. At first vaccine supplies fell short of demand; now some areas have surplus doses, so they're offering it to all comers, rather than just those on the priority list. The pandemic turned out to be less virulent than it might have been, which is good public health news, but not so great for vaccine makers who may have to take back doses from customers. And as the pandemic progressed, the efficacy of Roche's Tamiflu drew questions.

Now, H1N1 is winding down. Some virologists warn there might be a third wave of illness. But armed with vaccines, drugs, and lots of new data from on-the-fly studies of the new strain, the world feels ready to combat new cases. And so does the pharma biz.