The Trader's Guide to Flu Profits (or Lack Thereof)


In case you haven't heard, this is going to be a big flu season. Both New York and Boston have declared public health emergencies. My Foolish colleague Sean Williams wrote an article on 14 ways to play the flu outbreak.

This is a trader's goldmine. Or put another way, this is more short-term hype than long-term success.

Here today, gone tomorrow
We've seen this before. Remember the swine flu? Pharmaceutical companies rushed to make vaccines and saw a nice bump in sales as a result. But it was only a one-time bump that came crashing down. Gilead Sciences actually saw year-over-year revenue drop for the first time in more than a decade after sales of Tamiflu dried up post pandemic.

This time, flu vaccine makers -- GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis, AstraZeneca, and Sanofi -- won't even benefit from this outbreak. This year's vaccine is already made and sold. It's unlikely they'll ramp up production. By the time they did, the epidemic would be over. At this point, flu vaccine makers are focused on taking orders for next year's version of the drug.

Hospitals and drugstores such as Walgreen and CVS Caremark will likely see a slight bump. As will Gilead from Tamiflu, which doesn't change each year. But again, we're talking about a small one-time increase. It's no reason to buy the stock.

A quick response
Flu vaccine makers are working on ways to speed up the process of making the flu vaccine. The old system requires growth in chicken eggs, which can take six to nine months to produce. Drugmakers are slow in switching over to cell culture systems that can produce virus quicker.

Novavax is skipping the virus altogether. Its vaccine uses virus-like particles, a nanoparticle of proteins capable of eliciting an immune response. Trials in both seasonal and swine flu have validated the technique, but short of a major pandemic, the company will likely have to run larger trials to get approved.

Novavax was up big on Friday as word came out that the flu season was picking up, but the price has settled back down today as people realize that a bad flu season isn't going to have an effect on whether the drug works or not.

Thinking long term
A bad flu season could spur more people to get their flu vaccine next year, although the addition will be a small percentage of the overall sales of the large pharmaceutical companies that make the vaccines. Best case scenario, the added sales increase revenue by a percentage point or two, which would certainly be a welcome addition as drugmakers face declines from drugs going off patent.

But an increase in people getting vaccinated isn't sustainable growth. It's a one-time bump to a new sales level. And it might not even last. A few years of mild flu seasons and people will stop getting vaccinated.

A universal vaccine?
There are different strains of influenza virus, and they can recombine with each other to create a new strain. Each year, different strains of the virus are more prevalent, which is the reason we have to be vaccinated each year.

But if a vaccine against the part of the virus that doesn't vary could be developed, then we could get vaccinated once, perhaps with a booster every decade or so.

BiondVax Pharmaceuticals of Isreal and London's SEEK are both working on universal vaccines. Dynavax was working on one as well, but seems to have put it on the back burner while focusing on its hepatitis B vaccine Heplisav.

Thus far, big pharma seems to have stayed away from developing a universal vaccine. Not having to get vaccinated every year would cut into sales, but more people would likely get the vaccine and companies might be able to charge more for it. Pfizer's Prevnar 13, for example, is a multibillion-dollar vaccine that requires just three boosters.

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Fool contributor Brian Orelli has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Gilead Sciences. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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