In preparation for swine-flu vaccinations next month, the state of Washington's Health Department has temporarily suspended a rule that limits the amount of a mercury preservative in vaccines given to pregnant women and children under the age of 3.
Thimerosal has been eliminated from most vaccines in the United States, and the compound may be linked to autism. But it will be added to the bulk of swine-flu vaccines.
Thimerosal will be added to the vaccine because it is being produced in vials that contain enough medication for 10 shots. The mercury compound kills bacteria, lowering the risk that the drug will be contaminated by needles used to withdraw separate doses.
A smaller amount of mercury-free vaccine will be produced in single-dose vials. Nasal sprays do not contain mercury but are not recommended for children under the age of 2 and pregnant women, because they contain live, weakened virus.
Five biopharmaceutical companies have been awarded massive contracts by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for development and production of more than 195 million doses of swine flu vaccine.
The companies -- Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline, MedImmune, Australian drug maker CSL, and Sanofi-Pasteur -- will likely make a great deal of money.
Drug companies have sold $1.5 billion worth of swine flu shots, in addition to the $1 billion for seasonal flu they booked earlier this year.
These inoculations are part of a much wider and rapidly growing $20 billion global vaccine market.
"The vaccine market is booming," says Bruce Carlson, spokesperson at market research firm Kalorama, which publishes an annual survey of the vaccine industry. "It's an enormous growth area for pharmaceuticals at a time when other areas are not doing so well," he says, noting that the pipeline for more traditional blockbuster drugs such as Lipitor and Nexium has thinned.
As always with pandemic flus, taxpayers are footing the $1.5 billion check for the 250 million swine flu vaccines that the government has ordered so far and will be distributing free to doctors, pharmacies and schools. In addition, Congress has set aside more than $10 billion this year to research flu viruses, monitor H1N1's progress and educate the public about prevention.
Drugmakers pocket most of the revenues from flu sales, with Sanofi-Pasteur, Glaxo Smith Kline and Novartis cornering most of the market.
But some say it's not just drugmakers who stand to benefit. Doctors collect copayments for special office visits to inject shots, and there have been assertions that these doctors actually profit handsomely from these vaccinations.