FDA approves sale of Merck's shingles vaccine

KAI RYSSDAL: If you rule out all the lawsuits over Vioxx . . . Merck's been having a pretty good run lately. Just last week an FDA panel gave the thumbs up to a vaccine that could prevent cervical cancer. Count on a couple of billion in sales for that one every year. Today the agency approved what could be another blockbuster. The first vaccine for older Americans in 30 years. To protect them against the remnants of a childhood illness. Chickenpox. If you had it when you were a kid . . . you could get shingles when you get older. Since that's most adults today . . . Merck probably stands to make a buck or two. Marketplace's Hillary Wicai reports.


HILLARY WICAI: The same virus that causes chickenpox causes the nasty skin rash and blisters known as shingles. There are about a million U.S. cases every year. In trials the newly approved vaccine reduced the risk of developing shingles by more than half and also greatly cut down some of the most painful complications, like inflamed nerves called postherpetic neuralgia. Dr. Tim Schacker at the University of Minnesota calls that a significant advance.
DR. TIM SCHACKER: People who get postherpetic neuralgia, in many cases there's not a lot we can offer them. They get narcotics, but this can be a really debilitating condition.

The vaccine is approved for people 60 years and older. Dr. Jeffrey Silber at Merck Research Laboratories says that's the group most likely to develop shingles.

DR. JEFFREY SILBER: And there are nearly 50 million such individuals in the US in this age group and of course the leading age of the baby boom is just turning 60 this year so the population and the number of cases of shingles is expected to rise fairly substantially in the years to come.

The vaccine will cost about $150 per dose. Analysts like Steve Brozak, at WBB Securities say the vaccine has the potential to become a billion dollar a year drug for Merck.

STEVE BROZAK: Now it will depend on how quick of an uptake you do see in the medical community as advocating for it.

And that looks good too. Merck's research shows that 90% of doctors would recommend such a vaccine if it were available. And about half of consumers surveyed would ask for it. would ask for it.

In Washington, I'm Hillary Wicai for Marketplace.

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