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The swine flu has turned out to be a relative dud, hasn't it? Going the way of the bird flu and SARS, so far (thankfully), it hasn't done much but create a buying opportunity for those who didn't panic.

There has been some spending to combat the swine flu and the potential that it will crop up again next flu season, but that's been muted by the sheer size of the companies involved. Last week, the U.S. government set aside $1 billion to develop a vaccine against the virus, but that's not going to move the revenue needle much for the major drugmakers.


Award to Produce Vaccine Ingredients

Revenue -- 12 Months Ending March 2009

Increase to Revenue

Novartis (NYSE: NVS  )

$289 million

$42.3 billion


sanofi-aventis (NYSE: SNY  )

$191 million

$38.6 billion


GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK  )

$181 million

$36.5 billion


Source: The Wall Street Journal and Capital IQ.

There's also an additional $150 million available to these and other companies to produce a small amount of vaccine that will be used in clinical trials, but the additional cash won't change the numbers above by a whole lot. Unless we have an actual pandemic, it doesn't seem that preparing for the swine flu is going to affect these pharmaceutical companies' top lines much.

Some smaller companies have benefited quite nicely from preparations for a flu pandemic and other outbreaks, but it does come at a cost: the stockpiling eventually ends. Look at what's happened with a couple of companies that have relied on stockpiling to drive revenue.

In 2007, Gilead Sciences (Nasdaq: GILD  ) received $415 million in royalties from Roche for the sale of the antiviral drug, Tamiflu, that it helped develop. That was nearly 10% of revenue at the time. But as the stockpiling came to a close, royalty revenue from Tamiflu dropped to just $156 million in 2008. Fortunately, Gilead's HIV franchise has been able to more than make up for the lost revenue, although margins have taken a hit, since royalties come with practically no costs.

Human Genome Sciences (Nasdaq: HGSI  ) is in a worse situation. It had a contract with the U.S. government for its emergency anthrax treatment, ABthrax, but that's mostly fulfilled. The company had $177 million in revenue last quarter, blowing past any amount it's been able to bring in on an annual basis before. $154 million of that was just from delivery of ABthrax. The company expects another $8 million this quarter and could get a $10 million milestone payment if the Food and Drug Administration licenses the drug.

But now what? Unless there's an anthrax attack and the stockpile is depleted, there's not much of a market for anthrax treatments. That revenue from ABthrax is nice and all, and it will keep Human Genome going for a while longer, but ultimately, the company will need to get another drug approved -- one that can create a more consistent revenue stream.

Fortunately, it has two shots in relatively quick succession. Hepatitis C treatment Albuferon passed its phase 3 trial and will likely gain approval. But without a way to differentiate itself, sales may be small, considering the intense competition from Schering-Plough (NYSE: SGP  ) , Roche, and potentially Vertex Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: VRTX  ) , if it can get telaprevir approved. Human Genome also has a lupus drug in phase 3 trials for which data is expected later this year.

What's an investor to do?
Staying ahead of the game is hard work, but predicting the future is impossible. Stockpiling drugs and vaccines is likely to continue as new threats occur, but it'll always be one-time shots without a guarantee of future revenue.

Instead of looking for companies that can fulfill one-time needs, it's better to find companies with disruptive technologies that can change the game. Instead of looking for companies that can predict the future, look for ones that can change it.

Find out why The Motley Fool picked Vertex for our high-growth  Rule Breakers  newsletter by grabbing a  30-day trial subscription. You'll get access to all our back issues and the most recent picks.

Fool contributor  Brian Orelli, Ph.D., doesn't own shares of any company mentioned in this article.Novartis is a  Global Gains  pick. The Fool has a  disclosure policy.

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  • Report this Comment On May 28, 2009, at 10:52 PM, xetn wrote:

    An interesting note about Swine Flu; There has been, todate, less than 100 deaths world wide. The average number of deaths in the US from regular flu is 30-50000 per year. Why the big panic about this strain? I believe it is nothing more than a diversion from the economic crisis by world governments. They have to show the population they are "doing something" besides bailouts and huge deficits.

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