SAN FRANCISCO – The nation's supply of vaccine for the impending flu season took a big hit Thursday when Chiron Corp. (CHIR) announced it had found tainted doses in its factory.
The company said it will hold up shipment of about 50 million shots — about half the supply U.S. health officials had hoped to have on hand this year — while it investigates what went wrong and determines whether the vaccine is safe to use.
"There's no product that is going to go into the arms of the American public that will not have been deemed to have met the highest standards of safety," chief executive Howard Pien said.
U.S. health officials said some people may not get flu shots when they want this year, but that they were hopeful Chiron's production problems are only temporary. Pien said the company hopes to ship between 46 million and 48 million doses by early October, about month later than usual.
"Based on what we know, we don't expect a major delay and we believe we can effectively vaccinate the population at risk," said Dr. Julie Gerberding, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (search). "We are in daily contract with Chiron and we will be tracking this along with the Food and Drug Administration (search)."
About 1 million doses have already been shipped, but no vaccines have yet reached the public, Pien said. Vaccinations usually begin in September and continue through the flu season, with demand usually peaking in October and November.
Flu kills 36,000 people and hospitalizes another 114,000 in an average year, primarily the elderly, according to the CDC.
Last year's flu season got off to an unusually early and harsh start, which caused demand for vaccines to outstrip supply for the first time.
Health officials expect a record number of people to request vaccinations this year, owing to the publicity generated by last year's season and the subsequent shortage. The CDC ordered 100 million doses to be made for this season, about 17 million more doses than last year.
Chiron would not give details on the nature of the contamination, which Pien said was found in a small number of batches at the company's factory in Liverpool, England.
The company supplies about half the nation's flu vaccine. Aventis Pasteur (search) supplies most of the rest.
Last year, the company made 38 million shots, accounting for about $230 million in revenue.
Because of the production problems, Chiron also warned that its earnings will meet the "low end" of a forecast range. The company made the announcement after the stock markets closed. In after hours trading, the company's stock was down about $3, or 6 percent, to $44.50.