Unwanted bird flu drug clogs shelves

Thousands of doses of bird-flu medication languish on pharmacy shelves after the public ordered them in a state of pandemic hysteria – but never bothered picking them up.

Up to 18 months ago, public alarm was high at the possibility of an outbreak of the deadly H5N1 bird-flu virus. Waiting lists grew for the best-known drug defence against it, Tamiflu.

In late 2005, many of New Zealand's 900 pharmacies had hundreds on waiting lists. Tamiflu was fetching NZ$260 on international trading website eBay.

However, New Zealand experts say that since then public fears seem to have dimmed – but the threat is as real as ever.

International research shows that the virus has mutated and now exists in a form which more readily infects humans.

It has infected more than 330 people worldwide, many in countries near New Zealand such as Vietnam and Indonesia, which has the highest number of cases – almost 90 deaths.

Pharmacy Guild Canterbury representative Steve Thompson said pharmacies nationwide had possibly thousands of doses. He had about $2000 worth of the prescription drug in his pharmacy.

Between 12 and 18 months ago, people rushed to place orders for it, prepared to wait up to six months for it to arrive. A course costs about $70.

This month, most New Zealand stocks of Tamiflu powder, for children, will expire. Most capsules expire about 2010.

Christchurch virologist Dr Lance Jennings said the threat should not be ignored. Last week, two people died in Indonesia. The virus was mutating and spreading faster than when it was first contracted by a human in 2003, he said.

The Government has stored more than 1.2 million Tamiflu courses as a precaution.

The Press