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Exact Sciences: Severe Flu Season Slows Down Cancer Test’s Sales

Xconomy Wisconsin — 

Exact Sciences says two staples of winter—cold weather and flu season—have led patients and doctors to cancel more medical appointments than usual in recent months. As a result, the growth of Cologuard, Exact’s stool-based DNA test for colorectal cancer screening, has slowed, the Madison, WI-based company said.

Exact (NASDAQ: EXAS), which is developing screening tests for a variety of cancers, launched Cologuard in 2014. The company said it completed 571,000 tests in 2017, up from 244,000 completed tests the previous year.

Since 2016, Exact has increased the number of Cologuard tests completed per quarter by at least 14,000 over the previous quarter’s total. It appears that streak will soon end. Jeff Elliott, Exact’s chief financial officer, said in a conference call with analysts Thursday that his company expects to complete between and 176,000 and 181,000 Cologuard tests in the first quarter of 2018. At the high end, that would only be an increase of 5,000 tests over the previous quarter’s total, which was about 176,000 tests.

Due to cold temperatures and what Elliott called a “historically severe influenza season,” patients have been visiting their doctors less often this winter. Physicians typically discuss colon cancer screening with middle-age patients at routine wellness visits, Elliott said, which sometimes leads to the doctor ordering a Cologuard test. Fewer visits translates to Cologuard being discussed—and prescribed—less frequently, he said.

“We recently conducted a survey of 600 primary care physicians,” Elliott said Thursday, according to a transcript of the call on the stock market website Seeking Alpha. “Those physicians had canceled 21 percent of wellness visits over the last two months due to the flu outbreak and extreme winter weather. Many physicians are delaying preventative care while they deal with the flu.”

Exact’s survey also found that 22 percent of physicians had taken time off work because of the flu. That has reduced the number of opportunities Exact’s sales force has had to meet with doctors and educate them about Cologuard, Elliott said.

It has indeed been a severe flu season, experts say. Ann Schuchat, the acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, earlier this month told CNN that the cumulative rate of flu-related hospitalizations is the highest the agency has observed since 2009.

The worst of the season may have passed, however. During the week of Feb. 10 to Feb. 17, 6.4 percent of patients who saw a doctor were experiencing flu-related symptoms, according to the CDC. That was down from the prior week, when 7.4 percent of visits were flu-related.

Elliott said that in terms of getting through this flu season’s roughest patches, Exact believes “we’ve started to turn the corner.” Still, Elliott and other company leaders are not certain that the recent positive trend will continue.

Robert W. Baird & Co. analysts said in a research note Friday that they believe the harsh flu season has had a “temporary impact” on Exact’s business performance. Mark Massaro, an analyst at Canaccord Genuity, said his firm “does not see a reason why weakness will persist beyond the flu season, which typically winds down in March.”

Meanwhile, Raymond Myers of The Benchmark Company said it has decided to downgrade Exact’s stock from a “buy” rating to “hold.”