Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Who is making a profit from swine flu?

A host of companies and groups are making a packet from tackling the virus

Anjana Ahuja

Who knew that misplaced mucus could be such a moneyspinner? The rel-entless headlines about swine flu, and the seemingly contradictory public health advice — to shut or not to shut schools, whether pregnant women should or shouldn’t venture on public transport — has provided a window of commercial opportunity for enterprising souls. While it has instigated panic in some quarters, the pandemic has been a business bonanza for others.

So who is fattening up their piggy banks on the back of swine flu, and who else might be rubbing their hands with glee (and antibacterial handwash, of course)?

Drug companies

In terms of the share price, Roche is rocketing and GSK might as well stand for Great Swine flu Killing. The profits being reaped by these companies in the wake of the pandemic have been rising faster than the mercury in an old-fashioned thermometer.

Roche expects to have flogged 2 billion Swiss francs (around £1.2 billion) of Tamiflu by the end of this year, but what most people don’t realise is that another company, Gilead, actually made the drug and licensed its use to Roche (this kind of alliance allows smaller, innovative companies to harness the marketing muscle of larger companies). Gilead earns healthy royalties on every pack of Tamiflu. Interestingly, Gilead’s board of directors used to be chaired by Donald Rumsfeld, the former US Defence Secretary.

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) also expects to report a bumper balance sheet for the first half of the year. It manufactures Relenza, an inhaled alternative, suitable for pregnant women, as well as antiviral masks expected to be used widely by healthcare workers during a predicted autumn resurgence. GSK is also the main force behind the swine flu vaccine, which should be ready for delivery in the autumn and will cost about £6 a shot.

GSK remains rightly unbothered by accusations that it is exploiting the scare, pointing out that it has spent £2.5 billion researching vaccine development.
Andrew Witty, the chief executive, said this week: “Swine flu is going to be positive [for GSK], but only because we have put ourselves in a position to do it. And we have done that by taking very significant risks over a long time, diverting a huge amount of resources and doing the research that nobody else has done, so I’m not going to apologise that the company is going to make a return.”
GSK is planning to dole out 50 million free doses to the World Health Organisation, for use in poorer countries. A gesture not to be sneezed at.

There is renewed vigour in the sales of vitamin pills, food supplements and other items that supposedly reduce the risk of catching swine flu. Lloyds Pharmacy reported last week that it is selling seven times as many thermometers as this time last year, and, given that swine flu appears be diagnosed primarily on the basis of a fever, chemists can’t restock their shelves fast enough.

Chemists are also processing more prescriptions — all adding to the sound of ringing tills. Many chemists are now collection points for Tamiflu, which should bring in extra business. The downside is that pharmacists are more likely than the rest of us to come into contact with the virus and therefore become infected. Still, they will also be among the first in line for the vaccine and should have no trouble accessing the necessary drugs.

Soap and tissues

The soap firm PZ Cussons has lathered up a nice rise in sales, particularly of antibacterial handwashes and its Carex range of waterless hand gels. The company benefited from a 16 per cent rise in pre-tax profits to £89 million for the year to May 31. At the last count, Carex sales were soaring, thanks to, as the company delicately put it, “additional consumer focus on hand hygiene”.

The magazine Marketing Week reported that when the Government launched its swine flu public information campaign — with the slogan “catch it, bin it, kill it” — sales of Kleenex hygiene kits rose tenfold. The kits comprise two packs of antiviral tissues plus an antibacterial handfoam. Cleaning products are also doing a brisk trade, and cleaning products firm Kimberly-Clark is upping production of face-masks ina bid to cash in.

Firms offering health advice

One of the most written-about risk groups is pregnant women. The Government has issued confusing advice: that they should go about their normal lives, such as going to work and travelling on public transport, because swine flu is mild, but that they should make a special effort to steer clear of those infected. Sir Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer says that he might advise a more precautionary line in the autumn, if and when the virus makes a robust comeback.

Unsurprisingly, some organisations have seized the opportunity to provide clarification. One is the Zita West Clinic for pregnant women, which is offering 15-minute phone consultations for those worried about swine flu, at a cost of £45. The consultation, or personal appointment, focuses on lifestyle advice such as how to handle stress, get enough sleep and use probiotics. A vitamin D test is available for an additional £30. The charity Sense about Science is niffy about the service, and points out that apparently contradictory government advice “leaves the door open to the promotion of unfounded dietary regimes and lifestyle advice that play on the concerns of pregnant women”.

Dr Andrew Green, a GP in East Yorkshire and a member of the British Medical Association’s National GPs Committee, says that the clinic should be challenged to produce the evidence that any of its interventions reduced a person’s chances of getting swine flu.

Dr Green says: “Whenever you get a group of worried people, you get another group who seek to make money out of it. My golden rule is to ask advice from someone who doesn’t have a financial interest in the advice they give.

“There’s plenty of authoritative information available from your GP, midwife, NHS Direct or the National Pandemic Flu Service. It’s our job as GPs, whether busy or not, to guide our patients through the minefield of misinformation. Swine flu is almost always a mild illness and even if you are pregnant, the most likely outcome is that you will recover normally, your pregnancy will proceed normally and you will have a healthy baby.”

Another company is offering a pandemic influenza management scheme, for £49 plus VAT. For that, you get an online medical screening, a prescription and a course of antivirals (most likely Tamiflu, since the company says that it is stockpiling the same drugs as the Government). This sounds suspiciously like the treatment that you’d get through the National Pandemic Flu Service — free.

The unemployed

Jobseekers queued round the block to earn a three-week placement (or longer) at the call centres for the National Pandemic Flu Service (0800 1513100). There was such a rush to get the thing up and running earlier this month that you didn’t need to have an interview, although you did need to sign up to six hours of training. A manager at Teleperformance, the firm contracted to run the hotline, boasted to an undercover reporter that swine flu would be good for business.
The recession means that the service has been able to recruit 1,500 people, including out-of-work lawyers and graduates. “These are people who should be very high calibre and who would not usually be thinking of this type of work,” gloated one recruitment manager. The pay is £6.60 an hour.


OK, time to hold our hands up. Swine flu has been good for journalists, not least because people suddenly became interested in the news again (no mean feat in the summer season). The result has been a widespread pundemic, with such variants as whine flu (formerly known as man flu), wine flu (commonly known as a hangover), line flu (developing a cough while queueing for something) and mine flu (I had it before you).

According to Mariana Bettio, who monitors traffic to the timesonline.co.uk website, swine flu has been a top internet search for weeks and many news organisations, including the BBC and The Times, have benefited (the biggest spike came in May, when the virus emerged). The prevalence of swine flu in 84-point bold, on the front of tabloids, is testament to the virus’s power to shift newspapers.

The virus has also generated considerable online ingenuity. One internet marketing forum includes a page entitled “Swine Flu Now at Level 6! Profits Jump to Level 10! Why Aren’t You Raking It In Yet?” The forum tells subscribers how to cash in on swine flu being “one the hottest search terms on Google” and offers articles on swine flu for sale, that can be posted up on blogs or other websites under the buyer’s name. Thirty-seven dollars will buy you a 5,000-word report plus ten blog posts.

Meanwhile, the scope for online joke-swapping has been tremendous: fluBay.co.uk is a laugh, and did you know that a film is being planned, called “Aporkalypse Now”, with Kevin Bacon in the lead role?

Other potential beneficiaries:

Car parks: If I were a betting woman with a money-grabbing streak, I’d be bagging shares in NCP. Do you really want to spend two hours a day strap-hanging with people who look a bit peaky?

Taxis: Ditto. The obvious solution if you don’t like driving and you don’t fancy public transport — and you’re a bit flush.

Student tourists: Ever fancied doing Mexico on the cheap? This could be your chance.

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