Will New Flu Vaccine Fly?

February 14, 2007

Pharmaceutical Executive

Volume 0, Issue 0

CSL Biotherapies hires branding agency to prepare for possible product launch later this year.

CSL Biotherapies has hired an advertising and marketing agency as it prepares to throw its hat into the seasonal flu vaccine ring. The Australian company--which sells its vaccine in 24 countries and has captured one quarter of the British flu market--is hoping to launch Afluria in time for the 2007-2008 flu season. If approved, the product will be competing against Chiron's Fluviron, Sanofi-Aventis' Fluzone, GlaxoSmithKline's Fluarix, and MedImmune's FluMist.

CSL, whose US offices are in King of Prussia, Pa., is working with the Hal Lewis Group on advertising, branding, and Web-based marketing efforts. Although the company is keeping most launch details close to the vest, one driving theme will focus on pumping up demand for flu shots overall. "There is a great opportunity within the US flu market to increase public awareness about the need for the vaccine," said Ronan Gannon, VP of marketing in the US.

Gannon declined to discuss how Afluria would differentiate itself from the pack. But it's safe to say that all manufacturers in the flu market stake their success on how many individuals opt to get vaccinated during a given season: A mild flu season can lead to vaccine surpluses the following year, while the opposite is also true. The company plans to supply up to 20 million doses of the vaccine. Last year, 100 million doses were produced overall, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This seesawing has led companies like Wyeth to abandon the market, and the number of suppliers has been steadily dwindling--citing high costs, low margins, and liability risks associated with inoculating healthy individuals. But CSL is undeterred. "We think they've shown real strength in their sales and marketing, and they're well-positioned to compete in the US market," said David Winigrad, president of the Hal Lewis Group.

Public health officials have recently been rallying the industry for more participation. The market's fragility was exposed in 2004 when production problems left Chiron unable to supply roughly half of the country's flu vaccine supply.

Despite the risks, some companies are heeding the call. Most notably, Pfizer last year purchased PowderMed, a British biotech working on a needle-free flu vaccine that uses virus genes rather than dead or attenuated viruses to create an immune response. If the concept proves successful, the product would be cheaper and faster to manufacture than traditional vaccines.