For San Diego Biomedical Firms with Stakes in Swine Flu, It’s Time for a Check-Up

Xconomy San Diego — 

As swine flu raced through colleges and communities last summer and fall, at least five San Diego companies with flu-related products or research programs saw their share prices surge. Investors were betting that swine flu, the predominant circulating flu virus in the U.S., presented a real opportunity for these companies.

Now comes the reckoning. The influenza season, which normally runs from October through May, is winding down. An update issued April 9 by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said influenza cases were declining or stable throughout the country, and the percentage of all doctors’ visits by patients with flu-like symptoms had fallen to 1.1 percent—well below the seasonal norm—from a high of 7.8 percent last October.

Last September, I looked at San Diego companies with stakes in swine flu. The time has come to see how they have actually performed since the World Health Organization declared a global H1N1 swine flu pandemic in June.

—I’ll begin with Quidel (NASDAQ: QDEL). The diagnostic-test maker received special government clearance last summer to market its QuickVue rapid flu test for swine flu. The company told investors last summer it expected a revenue bump from sales of the tests.

And how. Quidel reported a 38 percent increase in 2009 net sales of infectious disease-related products. Total revenue jumped 28 percent for the year, driven by global sales of influenza products. Quidel’s shares are up about 12 percent since last June.

However, Quidel has already warned investors not to expect a repeat of its 2009 financial performance. “We do not plan for or expect the influenza pandemic of 2009 to recur in 2010. Accordingly, we expect a significant decrease in our influenza test sales, related earnings, and cash flows during 2010,” Quidel said in its annual filing with the SEC.

—Life Technologies (NASDAQ: LIFE) produces equipment that runs a diagnostic test, developed and distributed by the CDC, that can determine if patients are infected with the specific strain of the influenza A virus that causes swine flu.

The test has become the de facto standard in H1N1 detection, which makes Life’s equipment a must-have for public health labs. Life experienced an equipment-buying frenzy last spring, followed by an increase in sales of reagents to run the swine flu tests. The products contributed $45 million to annual revenue, about 25 percent of the $190 million in increased revenue Life reported for 2009, according to the company’s annual SEC filing. Life shares are up 30 percent since June.

—Inovio Biomedical (AMEX: INO) and Vical (NASDAQ: VICL) are working on their own experimental DNA-based vaccines for swine flu. Neither company could overcome enormous clinical and financial challenges to produce an approved vaccine last year. Instead, the companies used the pandemic as an opportunity to demonstrate the viability of their technology against a high-profile target.

Inovio’s experimental drug is a universal vaccine that contains bits of proteins from flu strains that account for the majority of seasonal and pandemic influenza. In July, the company reported that the universal vaccine protected mice and pigs exposed to swine flu. In a recent SEC filing, Inovio said it is evaluating development of vaccines to protect against swine flu and other influenza strains. Inovio shares, which trade in penny stock territory, have been on a rollercoaster since June, so the timing of an investment is crucial. Inovio shares are down 50 percent from their recent peak last July, but up 60 percent since June.

Vical reported last June that its vaccine, developed specifically for use against swine flu, looked effective in animals. The pre-clinical research was supported by the Navy.

Unlike Inovio, Vical is proceeding to human clinical trials. Last month, Vical said it has received a total of $2 million from the Navy to support a clinical study and activities related to a trial, including large-scale vaccine manufacturing. Vical said the funding clears the way for an early-stage trial to begin soon.

Vical shares, like those of Inovio, have been on a rollercoaster since the pandemic was declared. Vical shares are off 30 percent from their recent peak last September, but up about 30 percent from last June. They currently trade below $5.

—Pure Bioscience (NASADQ: PURE), based in El Cajon, CA, developed the antimicrobial silver dihydrogen citrate, or SDC. Last May, the Environmental Protection Agency added SDC-containing disinfectants to its list of antimicrobial products effective against swine flu and other strains of influenza A. CEO Michael Krall told me last September that 2009 could be a big year for the company, which markets its products through distributors.

Reviewing Pure’s SEC filings for the six months ending January 31 (the company is on a fiscal year), I couldn’t discern a “swine flu” effect. From what I can see, the filings don’t even mention swine flu or H1N1. Still, investors who bet last June that the pandemic would improve Pure’s fortunes have seen a 23 percent gain in Pure’s shares, which now trade around $2.60. It should be noted that the company’s shares jumped earlier this month when the EPA cleared its disinfectant for use in food packaging and processing.

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