More Tears at Bausch & LombMay 3, 2006 | www.thestreet.com The picture keeps on getting uglier for eye-care giant Bausch & Lomb (BOL:NYSE) .
A growing number of people who suffer from a rare eye infection have reported using B&L contact lens solutions, including a popular cleanser that still remains on the shelf. B&L has already halted sales of a cleanser known as ReNu with MoistureLoc because of a possible link to Fusarium keratitis, a serious fungus that can require cornea transplants and even lead to blindness.
However, the company continues to sell and heavily promote another popular solution, known as ReNu MultiPlus, that could be tied to the fungus as well.
B&L's stock has already taken a huge hit as a result of the recent damage to the company's well-known ReNu brand. The shares, which fetched nearly $90 last summer, spiraled 11% to a new 52-week low of $43.50 on Wednesday.
Looking ahead, some analysts fear the worst.
"With at least 27% of confirmed cases amongst contact lens wearers associated with ReNu MultiPlus, it's now possible that Bausch will have to stop shipment of this product as well," JP Morgan analyst Michael Weinstein wrote on Wednesday. And "even if the company elects to continue shipment of ReNu MultiPlus, we expect retailers and consumers alike will respond with caution."
By now, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has fielded reports of nearly 200 possible cases of Fusarium keratitis a fungus that, until recently, had rarely been linked to the use of contact lenses. The agency has already confirmed 86 of those cases and gathered complete information on 58 of that total. Importantly, of the 56 contact lens users in that group, 54 reported using some type of B&L solution.
Most, or 32, reported using ReNu with MoistureLoc. However, another 22 said they had used ReNu MultiPlus or some unspecificied ReNu solution.
Still, B&L itself seemed to downplay the cases involving MultiPlus users in particular.
"In the small sample of cases CDC has analyzed to date, 27% representation of ReNu MultiPlus solution is well below its approximate 40% market share," the company stressed. And "it would be expected that the distribution of lens care products associated with these cases would be roughly proportional to the products' relative market share."
By now, of course, B&L could be losing much of that market. Notably, Walgreens which ranks as the nation's largest drugstore chain has already stopped selling the entire ReNu brand.
Meanwhile, giant law firms have lined up to sue the company. Last week, for example, New York-based Parker & Waichman filed a case on behalf of a ReNu with MoistureLoc customer who has reportedly suffered "significant vision loss" as a result of the rare fungus.
"Several invasive procedures may be necessary to fully remove the infection from the eye, including the possibility of a corneal transplant," the firm claimed. Meanwhile, "Parker & Waichman LLP has been retained by numerous individuals diagnosed with Fusarium keratitis who underwent corneal transplants as a result of damage to their corneas caused by the infection."
To be fair, government investigators have yet to determine how or even if ReNu use has led to the fungus. They continue to work with company officials in hunting for some answers.
In the meantime, however, critics feel that B&L should have acted sooner to pull MoistureLoc from the shelves. Notably, Asian officials began reporting cases of Fusarium keratitis among MoistureLoc users as early as last year. B&L finally responded by halting sales of the cleanser in certain Asian markets back in February before doing the same here in the U.S. two months later.
The company has since replaced its Asian chief in a management overhaul. However, serious issues remain.
Even before the MoistureLoc scandal, Weinstein reminds, B&L faced accounting problems and looming restatements. Now, he notes, the company faces major threats to its lens care franchise which generates more than half of its total profits as well.
"We continue to see significant risks potentially, beyond Street expectations, associated with the ongoing ReNu investigation," he warns. Thus, "we recommend investors steer clear of Bausch & Lomb shares."