While thousands of Canadians line up for H1N1 vaccinations and people around the world worry about the spread of the virus, the pandemic is proving to be a financial windfall for many big corporations.
Yesterday Clorox Co., best known for its bleaches and other household products, said sales of its disinfectant wipes are at all-time highs. Sales have been so strong the company's profit jumped 23 per cent in the third quarter to $157-million (U.S.).
"The upside related to the H1N1 flu was well above our forecast given the rapid spread of the virus," said Larry Peiros, chief operating officer of Clorox North America.
Clorox is one of many companies benefiting from the H1N1 pandemic. Last week, Kimberly-Clark Corp. said sales of its face masks jumped 40 per cent year over year during the third quarter, and 3M Co. said it sold $100-million worth of masks in the last quarter.
"Our factories have been running flat out since May of this year to keep up with demand," said Pat Campbell, 3M's chief financial officer.
The Globe on H1N1
Even products not directly tied to fighting H1N1 are benefiting.
According to Chicago-based Information Resources Inc., a market research firm that monitors U.S. drugstores, sales of cough syrups and cold medications are up 8 per cent this year, while sales of hand sanitizers have climbed 19 per cent.
"Pretty much everyone who does something in influenza has gained from it," said Hedwig Kresse, an infectious diseases analyst at Datamonitor in London.
Drug companies stand to see the biggest gains. Global H1N1 vaccine sales are expected to exceed $7-billion this year, even with a mild pandemic, according to analysts at Sarasin & Co. in Switzerland. If the outbreak is more severe, sales could hit $18-billion.
British drug giant GlaxoSmithKline, which is making vaccines for use in Canada, said last week that it has received orders for 440 million doses from governments around the world. That is up from 291 million orders the company reported in August. The extra doses could bring the company's total annual revenue from the vaccine to around $4-billion, analysts estimate.
That's a fraction of GlaxoSmithKline's total annual sales, around $50-billion, but it is rising faster than any other company product.
France's Sanofi-Aventis, another big vaccine maker, expects its profit to increase by 11 per cent this year because of H1N1. And Britain's AstraZeneca said it sold $152-million worth of H1N1 vaccine to the U.S. government during the third quarter.
The windfall from H1N1 has put company executives in a difficult spot. While happy at the financial gain, they don't want to be seen rejoicing over a pandemic.
During a conference call with analysts yesterday, Clorox chief executive Don Knauss tempered his delight at the company's sales figures by noting that Clorox is working with nurses and teachers to help prevent the spread of H1N1. Last month, Clorox executive vice-president Beth Springer said the company was "capitalizing, appropriately, on H1N1 where it breaks out."
GlaxoSmithKline came under fire recently from international development organizations for selling the bulk of its vaccines to wealthy countries, which can afford the $10 a shot cost. The company said it would donate 50 million shots to the World Health Organization.
Last week, Douglas Baker of Ecolab Inc. tried to steer a careful line after announcing the company expects sales of its hand sanitizers to double in the fourth quarter.
"I mean, we're glad we're able to help the communities that we serve and the customers meet the challenges that H1N1 represents," Mr. Baker said before adding: "It certainly helped sales."
THE DOCTOR WILL HEAR YOU NOW
It turns out talk about H1N1 isn't cheap - in fact, it's providing a new revenue stream for physicians.
Patients ailing with the flu, who need to speak to their Ontario doctors, can now pick up the telephone, thanks to a ministerial order. If the chat is less than 10 minutes long, physicians will be paid $11. But if patients are particularly loquacious, talking 10 minutes or more, their doctors will be enriched by $27.55.
Previously, Ontario doctors were not paid to provide telephone advice, which caused sick patients to migrate to busy waiting rooms. The payment is aimed at providing those patients with care while keeping them home. "We're going to keep working hard until we get this right," Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews said yesterday. Lisa Priest