With countries stockpiling Tamiflu in preparation for a possible bird flu pandemic, will people who contract the common flu this winter be able to get the drug to ease their suffering?
Spokespeople for Roche, the maker of Tamiflu, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta say there shouldn't be a problem. Some doctors, however, are concerned that people may hoard the drug for their own personal use, possibly making it difficult for people in immediate need to get it.
Terry Hurley, a Roche spokesperson in Nutley, N.J., said there is "considerably more" Tamiflu available for flu sufferers this year than last, though he couldn't say exactly how much.
Supplies of the drug for influenza season are separate from those being stockpiled in preparation for a potential bird flu outbreak in people, he said.
'Two piles of product'
"We're producing quantities for government but we also have a significant amount of product available for the coming flu season," Hurley said. "There are two piles of product."
Dave Daigle, a CDC spokesperson, also said people who want to treat the flu with Tamiflu should be able to obtain the drug.
Dr. William Schaffner, chief of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and a spokesperson for the Infectious Disease Society of America, agreed there appears to be ample supply of Tamiflu at present, but a particularly bad flu season could drain that supply.
Tamiflu is in a class of drugs called neuraminidase inhibitors which can both treat and prevent influenza in adults and children over 1 year. If the pills are taken within 48 hours of the first symptoms and continued for five days, they can lessen the severity of the infection.
Tamiflu also is believed to improve survival in people who contract H5N1, the deadly strain of bird flu circulating that scientists fear could mutate to spread easily among humans. As a result, governments around the world have been buying supplies of Tamiflu in hopes of containing an outbreak.
On Thursday, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., announced that Roche will meet with at least four generic drug companies in coming weeks to discuss licensing agreements allowing them to make Tamiflu.
In the meantime, consumers should be aware there are other anti-viral drugs available to treat influenza, Schaffner noted. These are Relenza, amantadine and rimantadine. Relenza also appears to be effective against bird flu, though Tamiflu is the drug of choice for both regular flu and bird flu, Schaffner said.
"Tamiflu is easiest to take and has fewer side effects," he said.
Personal stockpiling a concern
Dr. Michael Niederman, chief of the department of medicine at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, N.Y., and a spokesperson for the American Lung Association, said he worries about people stockpiling Tamiflu for themselves.
Earlier this week, EBay stopped the auction of Tamiflu on its British site, after prices soared above $174.
For individuals worried about bird flu, it might seem like a good idea to try to get their own personal supply of Tamiflu. But Dr. Gwen Huitt, director of infectious diseases at National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, cautions against it.
For starters, bird flu isn't an immediate threat to people in the United States, according to Huitt. "There's no evidence that there's any pandemic right around the corner," she said.
The drug should be prescribed by a doctor when warranted and taken as directed, she emphasized. The improper use of the drug could even worsen a bird flu outbreak by allowing the virus to become resistant to it, she said.
Huitt said she heard of a patient planning to take one capsule each time he boarded a jet, an approach that hasn't been shown to be of benefit.
Dr. Chris Woods, an assistant professor of infectious diseases at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., also said he's hearing anecdotal reports that Tamiflu is being stockpiled for personal use.
"There is a concern that there may be some hoarding of Tamiflu going on," he said.
In addition, fears of bird flu may drive more people infected with influenza to their doctors' offices to request Tamiflu this flu season, said Woods.
"I think it's going to be a little harder to get the drug," he said.