Bird Virus Could Deplete Flu Drug Supply

MARCH 01, 2004

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.


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