Bird Virus Could Deplete Flu Drug Supply

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Experts warn that, if governments do not stockpile prescription influenza drugs to protect against bird flu, supplies will quickly diminish, should the virus become a pandemic. Although it is widespread among poultry in many Asian countries, only a handful of cases have been documented in people.

Initial discussions are going on between the US government and 1 drug manufacturer about providing a large quantity of drugs for use in an epidemic, but the medicine is still months away. If enough were available, the drugs could help buy time until a vaccine is developed to halt the flu from spreading. Yet, a flu vaccine takes at least 6 months to develop and manufacture under ideal circumstances. A bird flu shot, however, is more involved, because it requires genetic engineering techniques that have never been used in human vaccines.

Physicians believe that only 1 brand, Tamiflu (oseltamivir; manufactured by Roche), is practical for large-scale stockpiling, but as of press time no government had purchased the large quantities needed for a pandemic. The United States has already ordered an additional supply of Tamiflu to help deal with the current flu season, but a greater quantity would be needed for an epidemic. "[Tamiflu] needs to be in the national stockpile, just as much as Cipro and smallpox vaccine," said Arnold Monto, MD, a flu expert at the University of Michigan.

Tamiflu is 1 of 2 drugs called neuraminidase inhibitors that appear to be successful against all types of flu, including bird flu. The other, Relenza (zanamivir; made by GlaxoSmith-Kline), requires an inhaler and is rarely used. Roche produces only as much Tamiflu as is needed for an ordinary flu season and does not store the medicine for an emergency.