Mass buy-up of flu medication raises questions

New Zealand's purchase of millions of doses of flu medication and swine flu vaccines has been called into question by European reports suggesting pandemic advice was driven by drug company interests.

A British Medical Journal (BMJ) investigation has found key scientists advising the World Health Organisation (WHO) on planning for a flu pandemic had done work for drug companies who ultimately benefited from the guidance the scientists gave.

WHO's advice led to governments worldwide stockpiling billions of dollars of antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu before and during the recent swine flu pandemic. However, WHO has strongly denied that commercial interests played any part in its advice.

In 2005, the New Zealand government started stockpiling about 1.2 million doses of Tamiflu for use in a global influenza pandemic.

Only 20,000 courses have been used and 60,000 distributed to district health boards.

Shortly after the swine flu H1N1 virus reached New Zealand in early 2009, the Government bought 235,000 courses of Relenza, another antiviral.

The Government also bought 300,000 doses of a monovalent (single strain) swine flu vaccine.

As of last month, more than 900,000 doses of the seasonal flu vaccine – which includes the H1N1 strain – had been distributed nationwide, nearly as many doses as were distributed in the entire 2009 influenza season.

The Ministry of Health said it could not reveal the amount paid for these pharmaceuticals because it was "commercially sensitive".

It usually spent about $9 million a year on flu vaccinations.

Otago University, Christchurch, professor Les Toop said there was no question that drug companies had undue influence over governments and medical professionals.

The efficacy of antivirals such as Tamiflu was "well overplayed" by the companies as their effect turned out to be "very underwhelming".

Toop questioned why, despite there being no signs of a second wave and the H1N1 strain being included in the regular seasonal flu vaccine, the monovalent was still given to thousands of Kiwi health workers and pregnant women.

"Once you've bought it you want to use it," he said.

The Government's initial response to swine flu was right in that it was based on advice given at the time that the virus was easily spread and potentially deadly, he said.

However, this should have been reviewed once it became obvious that for most people it caused just a mild illness.

The BMJ investigation found that WHO advisers who wrote 2004 guidelines recommending stockpiling drugs in a pandemic had received payment from Roche (manufacturers of Tamiflu) and GSK (manufacturers of Relenza) for lecturing and consultancy work.

WHO director general Margaret Chan has strongly denied the organisation's advice was affected by connections to drug companies.

"At no time, not for one second, did commercial interests enter my decision-making," she said.

A Council of Europe report released this month said the handling of the swine flu pandemic, "led to a waste of large sums of public money, and unjustified scares and fears about the health risks faced by the European public".

The Press