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US, UK governments ‘wasted millions on flu drugs’: Report

The U.K. and U.S. governments spent millions stockpiling a flu drug that is no better than paracetamol, according to a new report.

Philipp Guelland | AFP | Getty Images

Governments globally bought Tamiflu, which is manufactured by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche, to prepare for flu outbreaks. However, a joint publication by the Cochrane Collaboration, a global not-for-profit organization of academics, and the British Medical Journal (BMJ) found Tamiflu did not cut hospital admissions or reduce flu symptoms.

Roche has criticized the findings, arguing that the report is flawed and that the drug is effective.

The British government has spent £424 million ($703 million) on the drug while the U.S. has spent over $1.3 billion buying reserve antivirals including Tamiflu, according to Reuters. Tamiflu sales were particularly strong back in 2009 when governments sought to ready themselves for the H1N1 "swine flu" pandemic.

The Cochrane Collaboration reviewed trial data on Roche's Tamlifu, as well as GlaxoSmithKline's Relenza, sampling 46 trials in total. The report said, "We identified problems in the design of many of the studies that we included, which affects our confidence in their results. We found that both drugs shorten the duration of symptoms of influenza-like illness (unconfirmed influenza or 'the flu') by less than a day."

The report said that Tamiflu did not affect the number of hospitalizations of people inoculated with the drug , and that Tamiflu's "effects on pneumonia and other complications of influenza, such as bronchitis, middle ear infection (otitis media) and sinusitis, were unreliably reported."

Furthermore, the drug was found to have increased the risk of suffering from nausea and vomiting. The BMJ said Tamiflu's trials were not conducted independent of the drug's manufacturer and that the trials "were against placebo rather than against standard drugs for relieving symptoms, such as paracetamol."

In response, Roche said in a statement: "We firmly stand by the quality and integrity of our data, reflected in decisions reached by 100 regulators across the world and subsequent real-world evidence demonstrating that Tamiflu is an effective medicine in the treatment and prevention of influenza."

Enrica Alteri, the head of medicines evaluation at the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which approved the drug in Europe, said the organization had reviewed the same cases as those studied by the new report and that she stood by the EMA's assessment.

Drug companies do not publish all their data and this report came about after a long fight for further information on Tamiflu.

At a briefing in London, Fiona Godlee, editor of the BMJ, said that obtaining the data had been a "really lengthy cat-and-mouse, Alice in Wonderland, bizarre experience of trying to get data on a drug which governments around the world were busy buying, stockpiling and spending billions of dollars on.

"Why did no-one else demand this level of scrutiny before spending such huge sums on one drug? The whole story gives an extraordinary picture of the entrenched flaws in the current system of drug regulation and drug evaluation."

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