Manufacturer halts shipment of flu drug to U.S.

October 27, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Roche has temporarily halted shipments of the anti-influenza drug Tamiflu in the United States, saying it wants to prevent hoarding and ensure adequate supplies to treat conventional flu cases this winter.

Roche said companies had been creating their own stockpiles for use by their employees in the event of a pandemic caused by avian flu. That activity threatened to deplete supplies needed for the regular flu.

"At the present time, we do not have an avian influenza pandemic in the United States," George Abercrombie, president of the company's U.S. subsidiary, said in a statement yesterday. "However, we need to make sure that people exposed to this year's seasonal flu virus will have access to Tamiflu."

Roche, based in Switzerland, said it would resume shipments of the drug when more flu cases occurred this winter.

The halt in shipments affects those to wholesalers and pharmacies but not those to the federal government for its stockpile.

Many nations are stockpiling Tamiflu as a first line of defense against a flu pandemic, and Roche has been unable to keep up with demand. Under pressure, the company said last week that it would consider letting other companies make the drug.

The drug, also known as oseltamivir, can reduce the duration of conventional flu or prevent it. Scientists say it should also work, perhaps not as well, against the avian flu that has killed more than 60 people in Asia.

But with the federal stockpile now able to cover only a few million people, individuals have been trying to get the drug on their own, as have "companies and other large entities," according to Roche, which would not identify any of them.

A spokesman said Roche was planning to supply twice as much Tamiflu for the seasonal flu this year as was used last year and did not anticipate a shortage.

Wholesalers and pharmacies now have a sufficient supply for legitimate needs, he said. But in a letter to its wholesalers yesterday, Roche suggested that they might want to limit how much they provided to pharmacies to preserve their inventories until the beginning of flu season.

The number of prescriptions for Tamiflu in recent weeks has been as much as 10 times as great as in the same week last year, according to Verispan, a company in Yardley, Pa., that tracks prescriptions. Last week, there were 67,443 prescriptions for Tamiflu, Verispan estimated, nearly quadruple the 17,172 for the same week a year ago.

Drugstore.com, an online pharmacy, has sold more Tamiflu in the past month than it did in the last half of 2004, said Greg French, a spokesman, adding that the numbers were "off the charts."

Since there has been no real outbreak of flu yet, it is believed that most of those prescriptions are for people who want to save the drug for use in the event of a pandemic.

Similar stockpiling is occurring abroad. Roche suspended shipments in Canada this week and is limiting supplies in Switzerland and Germany. Sweden's government is limiting how much doctors can obtain.

Some infectious-disease experts say that personal or corporate stockpiling could contribute to the drug's being wasted or used improperly, which could cause shortages in the future or allow the virus to become resistant to the medicine.

"They hear `bird flu' on the radio and they'll take their Tamiflu that day," said Roger Baxter, an infectious-disease specialist at Kaiser Permanente, which, he said, had stopped giving the drug to people who were not sick to save it for people who were.

Still, even infectious-disease specialists are stockpiling.

At a meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America this month in San Francisco, one speaker asked the audience how many had a supply of anti-influenza drugs at home. A fair number of hands, though clearly a minority, were raised.

He then asked how many were thinking of it. Most of the remaining hands went up.

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