A Biotech Company's Aggressive Move Backfires
By ANDREW POLLACK
Published: October 7, 2004
(must register to view original article)
Howard Pien, the chief executive of Chiron, said he wanted to help meet
America's need for more flu vaccine, while expanding the business of his
company. So Mr. Pien has been sharply increasing the production of flu
vaccine at a British factory Chiron acquired in 2003.
The company had expected that plant to supply about 50 million vaccine
doses to the United States this year, up from 26 million in 2002, when
the plant was owned by another vaccine maker.
But now Mr. Pien's aggressive plan has backfired. Finding contamination
problems, British regulators suspended the license for vaccine
production at the factory on Tuesday, a move that will deprive the
United States of nearly half the flu vaccine it expected for this
winter. The suspension has cost Chiron not only three-quarters of the
profit it expected this year, but also some of its credibility with
investors and customers.
Some analysts downgraded Chiron's stock, and Moody's Investor Services
said it was looking at lowering the company's debt rating. Mark
Augustine, an analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston, called Chiron a
"broken" biotechnology stock. Shares of Chiron plummeted 16 percent on
Tuesday, rebounding very modestly yesterday to close at $38.32, up 34
Vaccines accounted for about $700 million of the company's $1.75 billion
in revenue last year. Fluvirin, the flu vaccine, alone accounted for
$219 million. With the big increase in production, analysts had expected
more than $300 million in revenue from Fluvirin this year.
Chiron, anticipating increased revenue, had increased spending in
research and development and other areas of its business. It is also
building a new office for its vaccine business in Philadelphia. Now the
company may have to scale back plans. And prospects for its future flu
vaccine business are clouded.
Mr. Pien has said that the company remains committed to being a major
flu vaccine supplier next year. But he conceded in a news conference
Tuesday that addressing the problems at the factory might extend past
next February or March, when production would have to begin for next
Mr. Pien, who rose quickly in the management ranks in several major
pharmaceutical companies before becoming chief executive of Chiron in
April 2003, did not make himself available for an interview yesterday.
He said on Tuesday that the British regulatory decision was
"disappointing and unexpected, but we respect the regulatory authority's
judgment because it is based on concerns over safety."
One question is whether the contamination problems may have been a
consequence of Mr. Pien's push to increase vaccine production quickly at
the aging factory.
"The problem was they really stressed the system this year to get to
that 50, 52 million doses," said Geoffrey C. Porges, an analyst at
Sanford C. Bernstein & Company who formerly worked in the vaccines
business at Merck.
David V. Smith, Chiron's chief financial officer, said yesterday that
the company had not expanded its production too fast. About $75 million
has been spent to upgrade the factory in the last five years, the
company said. Chiron said it is committed to spending another $100
million to replace part of the plant.
The plant, located in Liverpool, dates back to the 1970's and has had a
series of owners and problems in the last decade as pharmaceutical
companies merged and divested assets.
Chiron acquired the owner of the Liverpool plant, PowderJect
Pharmaceuticals, in July 2003 to expand its vaccine business. That
merger was completed shortly after Mr. Pien took over, though the deal
had been planned before he arrived. PowderJect, in turn, had acquired
the factory in 2000 from Celltech, which owned it for about seven
Contamination problems were not new. Polio vaccines manufactured by
Medeva, another previous owner, at the plant before 1996 were recalled
in October 2000 after British authorities said they might be
contaminated with BSE, or mad cow disease. In 1999, the Food and Drug
Administration notified Medeva that there were risks of contamination in
the flu vaccine produced at the plant.
Production issues at the plant when it was owned by Medeva also caused
delays for Aviron, the developer of the nasal spray flu vaccine. The
manufacturing of the spray vaccine, called FluMist, is still done partly
on the same Liverpool campus but that production is now under the
control of MedImmune, which acquired Aviron.
"It's an old facility that was sold by Glaxo to Medeva, who spent some
money on it, though probably not in the right spot, then to Celltech,
who didn't give a toss," said one British pharmaceutical executive.
Still, J. Leighton Read, the former chief executive of Aviron, said that
he would not necessarily blame the age of the factory for Chiron's
"Every vaccine plant that's more than a year old that I'm aware of has a
history of challenges in complying with the regulatory regime," said Dr.
Read, now a venture capitalist. "In our extreme concern for safety,
which is largely appropriate, we have evolved systems that are too rigid
and brittle to adapt to circumstances such as this."
Chiron, based in Emeryville, Calif., is one of the nation's oldest
biotech companies, founded in 1981 by three scientists from the
University of California campuses in San Francisco and Berkeley. Perhaps
its biggest claim to fame is the discovery of the hepatitis C virus.
But Chiron has not had as much success in developing biotech drugs as
some of its competitors like Amgen and Genentech. The company has grown
in large part through acquisitions and now has three businesses - drugs,
the testing of donated blood for viruses like H.I.V. and hepatitis C,
The shutdown of its vaccine production could damage Chiron's business
beyond the immediate loss of revenue. Hospitals, clinics and
distributors might be more wary of ordering from Chiron in the future.
The federal government could become more aggressive in acquiring flu
vaccine from additional suppliers next year, or encourage other
companies to enter the business, which would cut Chiron's market share
in the future. Chiron is currently one of two major suppliers of flu
vaccine in the United States this year, the other being Aventis.
It is also possible the government will become more cautious in
expanding its recommendations on who should get flu shots. "I took down
my flu vaccine forecast right through 2012 because of this," said Mr.
Porges of Sanford C. Bernstein.
Investors might also become less trusting of Chiron management. Mr. Pien
gave public assurances, including in Senate testimony last week, that
although the company had detected a limited contamination problem in the
Liverpool factory, it was close to correcting the problem and would be
shipping flu shots early in October.
"It certainly raises eyebrows in the investment community," said Mr.
Augustine of Credit Suisse.
Argeris N. Karabelas, known as Jerry, who was Mr. Pien's boss at
SmithKline Beecham in the 1990's, defended his credibility. "I can tell
you there is nobody more credible that I've ever worked with than Howard
Pien," said Dr. Karabelas, now a venture capitalist in Princeton, N.J.
"This guy, if he said it, he believed it totally."
Mr. Pien, who was born in Taiwan and has an engineering degree from the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an M.B.A. from
Carnegie-Mellon, worked at Merck, Abbott Laboratories and SmithKline
Beecham, which later became GlaxoSmithKline.
He became head of most of the SmithKline pharmaceutical business at the
age of 40. His last position before joining Chiron was president of
international pharmaceuticals at GlaxoSmithKline when the company, along
with others, dropped a lawsuit aimed at keeping cheap copies of AIDS
drugs out of South Africa.
Heather Timmons contributed reporting from London for this article.