The Public Accounts Committee has revealed that since 2006, when the avian flu scare erupted, health officials in the UK spent £424 million stockpiling a flu drug called Tamiflu. This has been further compounded by the National Audit Office’s revelation that around 6.5 million units of the drug had to be written off because the antiviral may have been stored incorrectly – a mistake that has cost taxpayers £74 million (nothing to be sneezed at).
And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the drug doesn’t work anyway! According to a review published by The Cochrane Collaboration, an independent global healthcare research network, and the BMJ Group, there is “no evidence” that Tamiflu reduces the risk of hospitalisation or serious influenza complications (such as pneumonia or bronchitis) in either adults or children. The only benefit is a slightly quicker alleviation of the symptoms of around half a day (down from 7 days to 6.3 days).
But the real scandal is this: the company that makes the drug has known all along that its product is ineffective! The data on which the Cochrane review is based is not new – it’s been sitting in the vaults of Tamiflu’s manufacturer, Roche, for years. They just never released the information because they were not obliged to do so! They were not breaking any laws. Concerted efforts by the Cochrane team to persuade Roche (and, also, GlaxoSmithKline, who manufacture Relenza) to hand over a full set of clinical study reports did not bear fruit until last year. In the world of pharmaceutical research, there is simply no mandatory requirement to publish full data pertaining to clinical trials.
It’s about time there was such a requirement. This is medical incompetence at its most egregious. Pharmaceutical companies should not have what amounts to an immunity from responsibility. It’s enough to give you the shivers and we need a prescription for it as soon as possible.