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Fungus haunts Bausch & Lomb

Pressure builds on Bausch & Lomb to recall a lens solution that may be linked to eye infections

Apr 14, 2006 | AP After two days in a tailspin, shares of Bausch & Lomb edged up Thursday as federal officials investigate whether its newest contact lens solution is to blame for a fungal eye infection that can cause blindness.

Major U.S. retailers, led by Wal-Mart, Walgreens and CVS, have been pulling the ReNu with MoistureLoc solution off their shelves, and pressure on the eye-care company to recall the product kept building Thursday.

The company stopped shipments of MoistureLoc in the United States on Monday when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed it was scrutinizing 109 reports of Fusarium keratitis infections in patients in 17 states over the last 10 months.

Federal health officials have made no direct link between MoistureLoc and the infections, but a high incidence of the dozens of affected patients interviewed so far had used the cleaner.

With analysts lowering their ratings, Bausch & Lomb's stock tumbled 14.6 percent Tuesday to a 2 ½-year low and fell another 7 percent Wednesday. But the shares turned upward Thursday, rising 81 cents, or 1.8 percent, to $46.42 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Bausch & Lomb's chief executive, Ron Zarrella, told analysts Wednesday that MoistureLoc kills the fungus that causes the cornea infection and said the source of an apparent spike in the infections remains a mystery. But Zarrella acknowledged that ``we haven't begun to estimate the ripple effect that all this negative publicity will have on other ReNu products.''

Inspectors from the Food and Drug Administration have been scouring Bausch & Lomb's factory in Greenville, S.C., for almost three weeks and have found no evidence of contamination, Zarrella said.

Fusarium is found in plant material and soil in tropical and subtropical regions. Without eye-drop treatment, which can last two to three months, the infection can scar the cornea and blind its victims. Symptoms can include blurry vision, pain or redness, excessive discharge and increased sensitivity to light.

MoistureLoc, which contains new-generation moisturizing and conditioning agents, first hit stores in late 2004 and generated $45 million in U.S. sales last year, a small portion of Bausch & Lomb's more than $2 billion in annual revenues.

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