For Meningitis B Vaccines, Climbing Revenue, and Plenty of Skepticism

From By SHEFALI LUTHRA | SEPT. 7, 2017

Small college outbreaks four years ago of meningitis B — an extremely rare variation of the dangerous infection — have set off a lucrative new business: persuading parents that pricey vaccines are a loving investment for their college-bound children.

Today, two brand-name vaccines, both with price tags topping $300, are widely advertised on television playing to parents’ fears. “As moms, we send our kids out into the world, full of hope,” says a mother in the ad for Bexsero, sold by pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, as her son loads up the car to go off to college.

Says another voice: “And we don’t want something like meningitis B getting in their way.”

Vaccine makers are hoping to profit from an ailment that very few people get. Still, analysts expect the two medications to generate at least hundreds of millions of dollars in global sales annually. GlaxoSmithKline said that Bexsero alone brought in $166 million in the United States last year.

That’s a remarkable number considering that at the time of the outbreaks four years ago, which occurred at Princeton and the University of California Santa Barbara, Bexsero wasn’t even available in the United States — in fact, no meningitis B vaccines were on the market. Despite availability abroad, vaccines had never been licensed in the country because of the apparent limited need.

Meningitis B is unusual. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated fewer than 300 cases occur in the United States per year, and some medical experts interviewed suggested the number may be closer to 50 or 60. It is more common in European countries, particularly Britain.

However, the headlines prompted by the 13 campus cases — which resulted in one death and one double amputation — helped reshape the financial prospects for the drugs. Some physicians and other industry experts are now growing uneasy about the role of marketing in leveraging parental fears to sell the meningitis B vaccines as well as other expensive vaccines for rare illnesses.

A complete Bexsero series costs $320. A competing vaccine for meningitis B, Trumenba, a Pfizer product, costs $345.

“Parents believe their children are susceptible to this terrible condition, and use that fear to get parents to take action,” said Adrienne Faerber, who teaches at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice and researches drug marketing.

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