Lucky Break for Chiron

Sarah Lacy

It's day three here at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco and, maybe everyone is just sleeping late from all the cocktail parties, but the mood and hoard of people are both greatly diminished. When I came in this morning, I could have twirled through the lobby that for two days has resembled Grand Central Station at rush hour. (My theory seems to have just been confirmed by an anonymous JP Morgan banker hanging out in the press room who grappling for coffee said, "I need to stop staying out drinking until 1 a.m.")

All these hangovers may have benefited Chiron Corp. more than anyone.

The controversial biotech company set off a flu crisis last November when European regulators found problems with its Liverpool manufacturing facility-- too late for anyone to make up the 50 million or so shots Chiron was supposed to deliver to the U.S. for the 2004-2005 flu season.

All the reporters from the press room flooded down to hear CEO Howard Pien, a BusinessWeek Worst Manager for 2004, presented his case for why investors should believe in him and Chiron at 8:30 a.m. But other attendees were sparse.

Maybe people are bored with the story. Maybe the mild flu season this year has dulled the impact of the so-called crisis. Or maybe investors are sick of hearing the company say it doesn’t know whether it’ll be ready for next year’s flu season. But there are similar uncertainties surrounding Merck & Co. Inc. post-Vioxx debacle and that presentation, held yesterday morning, was standing room only and grim.

Pien ended his comments by offering thanks to investors who had stood by the company. Perhaps he should have thanked JP Morgan for the favorable time slot.

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