A long overdue flu shot

As China races to develop vaccines for swine flu, big profits look likely

A long overdue flu shot

The hunt will end in October

As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure.

When it comes to swine flu, China is hoping to prove the old adage is as relevant as ever.

Even though swine flu (A/H1N1) may not be as virulent as initially feared, Chinese health authorities are not leaving anything to chance. Men in yellow hazmat suits, masks and goggles are commonplace at local airports and hotels. Thousands of visitors to China who have shown symptoms of fever have been quarantined.

But China is also pushing for the development of a vaccine.

Health authorities have announced that by October 1, the country expects to stock up on a A/H1N1 flu vaccine for 1% of the population.

If all goes well, says Chinese state news outlet, Xinhua, it will also be possible to produce a further 600,000 doses a day.

“We are confident we can produce 360 million doses of vaccine a year,” forecasts Yin Hongzhang, head of the State Food and Drugs Administration biology production office.

Already, about 10 designated Chinese vaccine producers are racing to be the first to successfully develop the vaccine.

Little wonder: the winner will secure lucrative contracts with the government.

According to China Daily, Beijing Sinovac Biotech, Zhuhai Hualan Biological Engineering and Shenzhen Neptunus Interlong Bio-tech were among those to have obtained the seed virus strain from the World Health Organisation.

Li Yingpeng, a pharmaceutical analyst at Galaxy Securities, expects 13 million doses of the H1N1 vaccine to be sold to the government before October 1 – which, he says, presents a “huge business opportunity”. At Rmb30 ($4.4) per dose, the vaccine makers could reap up to Rmb300 million in profits.

There are risks too, says Li. The evolution of the H1N1 flu is highly unpredictable, as a virus can easily mutate into other strains. So the returns on investment related to getting a vaccine into the market cannot be guaranteed.

However, that has done little to dampen local vaccine makers’ enthusiasm.

Already, Sinovac has announced that it has completed the construction of the H1N1 virus seed bank necessary to produce a virus antigen.

It expects to initiate clinical trials of a vaccine by the end of this month.

Sinovac received a Rmb100 million loan from the Bank of Beijing to purchase pharmaceutical raw materials and to expand its manufacturing facility, says Chief Executive Yin Weidong. Its current annual vaccine production capacity is between 20 million and 30 million doses.

The Chinese vaccines market, valued at roughly $1 billion in 2008, is currently growing in excess of 30% per year.

Rising awareness of the importance of vaccinations among the world’s largest population make for a lucrative business.

GlaxoSmithKline seems to agree. The UK-based pharmaceutical group has taken a 40% stake in Shenzhen Neptunus – a local vaccine maker – to tap into the growing market.

The Chinese government is willing to try other approaches too. Mainland health authorities have allocated Rmb10 million to research treatment of swine flu using traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

Apparently, the nation’s 5,000-year-old techniques have proven surprisingly effective in countering the symptoms of the pandemic.

Wang Yuguang, deputy dean of the Centre of Integrated Traditional and Western Medicine at Beijing’s Ditan Hospital, told the South China Morning Post that traditional approaches compared well to the use of modern treatments like Tamiflu.

Wang claims swine flu patients treated with Chinese medicine recuperated faster and so were able to leave hospital after a shorter time.

And Chinese medicine costs much less too, says Wang.

TCM treatments cost only Rmb10-13 a day, he says, compared to Tamiflu’s Rmb56.

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