Mass dump of Tamiflu a bitter pill to swallow

MICHELLE DUFF
Last updated 05:00 27/02/2014
Tamiflu
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COLD COMFORT: The government began buying Tamiflu in 2004, and had 1.5 million courses by 2010. About 55,000 courses were used during the swine-flu outbreak of 2009.

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The Government has thrown out almost 1.5 million doses of an expired anti-flu drug after just a fraction of the national stockpile was used during the 2009 swine-flu pandemic.

Only 55,000 doses of the national stockpile of antiviral Tamiflu were ever used - but the Ministry of Health will not reveal how much has been spent stockpiling a drug whose efficacy has been questioned.

The British Government faced criticism last year for being forced to throw away about 6.5 million courses of Tamiflu, worth $150 million, after an audit found problems with its storage. Its efficacy was also queried.

"There is a lack of consensus over how well Tamiflu works, in particular whether it reduces complications and mortality," a public accounts committee report to the British parliament said.

Some medical researchers and the British Medical Journal have been sceptical of Tamiflu, partly because clinical trials were withheld by its manufacturer, Roche.

The New Zealand government began buying Tamiflu in 2004, and had 1.5 million courses by 2010, documents obtained under the Official Information Act reveal.

About 55,000 courses were used during the H1N1 "swine flu" epidemic of 2009. The remainder expired and are being replaced.

But National Health Board director Michael Hundleby would not reveal how much had been spent on the drug "because doing so could prejudice or disadvantage commercial negotiations".

Based on the price paid by the British government - $22 a dose - the cost of the original 1.5 million doses would be more than $30m. Based on the retail price of Tamiflu - $75 a dose at pharmacies nationwide - it could be as much as $110m.

The Ministry of Health has a deal with Roche New Zealand, under which expired Tamiflu is returned to the company and replacement courses bought for half the price.

Both Labour health spokeswoman Annette King and Green Party health spokesman Kevin Hague called for the cost and any audits to be made public yesterday.

"The public has a genuine interest in knowing that the ministry has been managing the supply of Tamiflu in a responsible way . . . I just can't see any reason for keeping the public out of the loop," Mr Hague said.

Ms King said a stockpile was absolutely necessary, but the Government should be open about how much those drugs cost and how they were being chosen, monitored and stored.

Ministry emergency management director Charles Blanch said pandemic planning involved holding national stockpiles as recommended by the World Health Organisation.

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"New Zealand has a comprehensive plan for a pandemic, which is regularly updated . . . part of that planning includes national stockpiles of pre-pandemic vaccines, antibiotics and antiviral medicines such as Tamiflu and Relenza.

"The ministry continues to monitor developments in this area. For instance, ESR continues to review the antiviral effectiveness of Tamiflu and Relenza."

ESR virologist and World Health Organisation National Influenza Centre director Sue Huang, whose two children caught swine flu in 2009, said it was still the best tool against a virus.

"The biological mechanism is very, very well understood. The problem for Tamiflu is, for it to have effect, you have to take it within two days of your infection and that can be a bit tricky."

When an influenza epidemic strikes, it can take months for a vaccine to be available.

The current national reserve pandemic supplies are 1.1 million doses of Tamiflu; 229,000 courses of Relenza and 150,000 doses of pre-pandemic H5N1 vaccine. Reserve supplies also include respiratory protection and body bags.

- The Dominion Post

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