Barely two weeks after the pricing and profit margins of Big Pharma’s swine flu vaccines and anti-virals were the subject of the critical spotlight in the UK media, Roche’s Tamiflu (oseltamivir) has come under scrutiny, fuelled by articles in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and The Lancet Infectious Diseases questioning the drug’s effectiveness in young children.
The BMJ article concluded that both Tamiflu and GSK’s Relenza (zanamivir) offer only a modest benefit to children under 13 with the virus, and that Tamiflu’s side effects can be as severe if not worse than the symptoms of swine flu itself. With its usual topical gusto, breakfast television had picked up on the story this morning (11 August), and had invited a range of concerned parents to ring in with tales of their children vomiting or suffering a worsening of existing conditions such as asthma after taking the Roche drug. UK breakfast TV presenter Andrew Castle went as far as to say his own daughter had “nearly died” after taking the drug.
The Lancet Infectious Diseases article, based on research carried out by the University of York, claimed that a study of swine flu-infected adults taking antiviral drugs showed a reduction in symptoms just half a day earlier than those not taking anything.
So the big stories now are suggesting 1) doctors are prescribing drugs like Tamiflu far too readily and 2) young children are suffering more from the side effects of antivirals than from swine flu itself.
Naturally, the UK authorities are re-iterating that all potential side effects of the treatments are adequately explained in the information provided with them. And the UK’s chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson has emphasized that, at the moment, antivirals “are the only available weapon, albeit imperfect, against the virus.”
He might have been tempted to add: “We just can’t win!”