Chiron will be unable to deliver as many flu vaccine doses as it hoped this year because it has taken longer than expected to get its manufacturing programme back on track after last year’s suspension, according to the firm’s chief executive, Howard Pien.

Pien told a conference call yesterday that the extent of the changes that Chiron had to make at its manufacturing facility for Fluvirin in Liverpool, UK [[06/10/04b]], meant that the company got production up to speed later than expected, and it would now produce fewer than 18 million doses for the coming flu season. He would not estimate the actual number it will now deliver.

Just last week, Chiron was boosted by the news that it had delivered the first 1.5 million doses of Fluvirin since the Liverpool plant was shut down because of bacterial contamination problems [[14/10/05c]]. But Pien said that the shortfall would now mean Chiron will be unable to meet its 86 cents a share earnings estimates for 2005 - again he did not say by how much.

The story should be very different next year, he suggested, with a 40 million-dose capacity expected, more than half the total US requirement for flu vaccine.

In the meantime, however, Chiron’s position as supplier for around half the total flu vaccine requirement of the USA has come under threat. Sanofi-Aventis, which owned the other half of the US market for flu vaccines before Chiron’s manufacturing problems, has ramped up production and is expected to supply around 60 million doses this year, while GlaxoSmithKline will supply 8 million doses of its recently approved Fluarix vaccine and MedImmune will contribute 3 million doses of its nasally-delivered FluMist vaccine.

The US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) said after Chiron’s announcement, it expected the number of flu vaccine doses to be “significantly higher” than last year, and while “spot shortages” may occur in the early months, these should be resolved as the season progresses.

Despite the loss of Fluvirin supplies last year, a mild 2004/05 flu season, and a concerted effort to source vaccines from other suppliers, meant that the feared widespread shortages did not materialise.