A team of researchers who have been studying the flu drugs Tamiflu and Relenza released a new report that they say raises new doubts about the benefits of the drugs. But flu experts lined up to defend the medications, which they say can help reduce the most severe and deadly effects of the virus.
The report, published jointly by the influential Cochrane Review and the British Medical Journal, seeks to cast doubt on the widespread use of the two drugs, which doctors give to treat influenza and to prevent it in people who have a high risk of complications.
The two drugs are in a class called neuraminidase inhibitors, and they are the only two drugs licensed in the U.S. and Europe to treat the currently circulating types of flu.
“The balance between benefits and harms should be considered when making decisions about use of both neuraminidase inhibitors for either the prophylaxis (prevention) or treatment of influenza,” Dr.Tom Jefferson, Dr.Carl Heneghan and Dr. Peter Doshi of the Cochrane Neuraminidase Inhibitors Review Team wrote.
They reviewed a huge batch of studies, published and unpublished, saying they wanted to make the point that much of the research used to get the drugs approved and licensed was of poor quality. They found the drugs often do work as hoped, but not always.
Flu experts agreed the drugs aren’t as effective as, say, an antibiotic would be against a bacterial infection such as strep. But they also strongly defend both drugs as important weapons against flu, which kills between 4,000 and 49,000 people a year in the U.S. alone.
“We need better antivirals, including combination antiviral treatments, but right now this is all we have got,” said Dr. Tim Uyeki of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s flu division.
“CDC recommends early antiviral treatment as soon as possible for any hospitalized patient with suspected or confirmed influenza,” he told NBC News. “The number of observational studies suggesting the benefit of early antiviral treatment in hospitalized patients keeps growing.”
The benefits of Tamiflu, given as a pill or in a syrup and Relenza, an inhaled powder, “greatly outweigh” any side-effects, Uyeki said.
Other experts said questioning the benefits of the drugs could cost some people their lives. “We now know that antivirals saved lives during the (2009 H1N1 swine flu) pandemic and we risk losing one of the few weapons we have because of overly negative publicity,” said Peter Openshaw, Director of the Center for Respiratory Infection at Imperial College London.
“This new report, taken alongside a lot of other data collected in different settings, does not convince me that the risks of taking Tamiflu or Relenza would outweigh the benefits," said Wendy Barclay, another flu expert at Imperial College London.