Swine flu prompts CVS, Walgreen to ramp up

Monday, April 27, 2009 at 10:40pm
Carol Wolf, Bloomberg News

CVS Caremark Corp. and Walgreen Co., the two largest U.S. drug-store chains, are preparing stores for a possible rush on hygiene products and pharmaceuticals as swine flu spreads through North America.

Walgreen purchasing managers met over the weekend with suppliers to ensure the retailer can meet a surge in demand for personal-hygiene products such as hand sanitizers and face masks, said Michael Polzin, a company spokesman. CVS ordered additional doses of Roche Holding AG’s antiviral drug Tamiflu for New York City, said Michael DeAngelis, a spokesman.

The drug stores are taking preparatory steps as U.S. authorities have confirmed more than 40 cases of swine flu, the virus that has sickened 1,000 people in Mexico and is linked to the deaths of more than 100. Six people in Canada contracted the disease in the provinces of Nova Scotia and British Columbia, health officials there said. In Nashville, Metro Health Director Dr. Bill Paul said he expected the illness to migrate here soon.

“Drug stores will be on the front lines for distribution of anti-viral medications used to fight swine flu,” Adam Fein, president of Philadelphia-based Pembroke Consulting, which advises drug makers on distribution strategies, said Monday in a telephone interview.

“Since the outbreak, we’ve seen a marked increase in prescriptions for Tamiflu in the New York area,” DeAngelis said in a telephone interview Monday.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Sunday that stockpiles of drugs to treat patients will be made available. There is no vaccine for the virus and officials suspect new illnesses in Brazil, Europe and New Zealand. In Mexico, the government requested that bars, movie theaters and churches be closed in the capital, Mexico City.

Authorities are suggesting the public wash their hands more frequently and take other precautions to thwart illness. That could lead to increased purchases of sanitizers, masks and other personal-hygiene products, Walgreen’s Polzin said.

“We want to ensure we have enough of these type products if demand for them increases,” he said.

Kimberly-Clark Corp., which makes antimicrobial soap, disposable respirators and face masks through its health-care business, runs a pandemic preparedness Web site for hospitals and others.

“Kimberly-Clark is actively monitoring the situation and is coordinating closely with its customers to supply health-care products to identified areas of need,” spokesman Lance Latham said in an e-mailed statement.

Walgreen, which is based in Illinois, is coordinating its efforts with its in-store clinics. The company has more than 6,700 stores. CVS, which has 6,900 locations, was able to meet the jump in demand for Tamiflu, DeAngelis said. CVS hasn’t seen a run on personal-hygiene products yet, he said.

Napolitano said 25 percent of “courses of treatments” of drugs, known as antivirals, were being released from U.S. stockpiles. In all, there are 50 million courses, she said. Among those are Tamiflu, sold by Switzerland’s Roche, and Relenza, from GlaxoSmithKline plc of London. Gilead Sciences Inc. invented the drug and gets royalties.

The U.S. government declared a public health emergency Sunday to devote more resources to blocking the virus. The move frees up funds to buy medicine and allows the use of “medication and diagnostic tests that we might not otherwise be able to use,” Napolitano said.