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Hoarding halts flu drug shipments in U.S.

/ Source: The Associated Press

Pharmaceutical company Roche Holding AG said Thursday it temporarily suspended shipments of Tamiflu to private sector recipients in the United States to ensure that enough of the antiviral drug that experts believe is most effective in treating bird flu will be available for the influenza season.

U.S. companies and large organizations apparently have been hoarding the drug amid the spread of bird flu and fears that the virus could mutate into a strain transmittable among people. On Thursday, Russia announced a new outbreak of the deadly H5N1 virus among poultry.

“We’ve seen recently some very large purchases at the wholesale level, companies or large entities who are possibly hoarding Tamiflu right now,” said Darien Wilson, spokeswoman at Roche’s U.S. offices in Nutley, N.J

The Swiss drug giant emphasized that the temporary suspension will not affect Washington’s orders to build up a national stockpile of Tamiflu, the drug experts believe to be the best defense against a possible flu pandemic.

“We have agreed orders with governments and we will fulfill them,” said Alexander Klauser, a Swiss-based Roche spokesman. “It is important that this is seen separately from the pandemic offers.”

He said Roche’s U.S. management proceeded with the suspension because of the increased global demand for Tamiflu. Roche officials in Switzerland, Germany and Canada already had disclosed that they were limiting distribution to pharmacies because they didn’t want individual people hoarding the drug.

“The priority is that there is enough Tamiflu for the people who need it at the start of the influenza season,” Klauser told The Associated Press. “At the moment, there is no influenza currently circulating.”

Supplies have become tight because governments and other organizations are stockpiling it in case the H5N1 strain spreading from Asia to Europe mutates into a form that can pass easily to and between people, sparking a human flu pandemic.

Experts are pinning their hopes on Tamiflu to soften the impact of a pandemic. It would be used to treat the sick and those who have come into close contact with them in hopes of saving their lives and stopping the spread of the virus while scientists rush to make a vaccine.

A U.S. firm that monitors pharmacy sales reported that last week prescriptions for Tamiflu had quadrupled compared to the same period a year ago. Prescriptions totaled 67,443 compared with 17,172 for the same week in 2004, according to Verispan, a pharmaceutical marketing research company.

While the U.S. government has not advised Americans on the issue of personal stockpiling, the American Medical Association warns against it and says the misuse of Tamiflu could lead to drug-resistant flu strains.

EU officials announced Thursday that European scientists are developing a prototype drug — the latest group around the world to announce they are working on a potential pandemic vaccine.

It is not possible to create a functioning vaccine until a pandemic strain emerges and scientists can match it; once a strain does emerge, it could take six months to produce adequate amounts of vaccine. That process can be accelerated by experimenting with vaccines using existing bird flu strains such as H5N1 believed to be capable of spawning a human pandemic.

The EU team, which began its work in 2001, is using the strain H7N1. Its prototype research aims to perfect ingredients and refine other aspects of vaccine development in preparation for swapping in a pandemic strain.

New bird flu cases

Meanwhile, Russia on Thursday reported new bird flu cases in chickens and ducks in a Siberian region hit by the H5N1 strain. About 90 birds have died in the village of Rotovka in the Omsk region, Russian officials said.

Authorities have imposed a quarantine in Rotovka, some 1,550 miles east of Moscow, and were considering whether to kill all 3,300 birds there, said Boris Mishkin, the head of the regional branch of Russia’s veterinary service. No people have been infected by bird flu in Russia.

The H5N1 strain of the disease has already been detected in birds in Romania, Russia and Turkey and Croatia, raising fears it could spread across Europe. The strain has killed at least 62 people in Asia since 2003.

Klauser said the increased demand for Tamiflu would mean that “over the next few weeks, limited stocks would be available in most countries.”

Tamiflu is one of four drugs that can treat regular flu if taken soon after symptoms begin.

“The Chinese government is taking effective measures to prevent the spread of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu,” the official Xinhua News Agency said, citing Premier Wen Jiabao in the first comment by a Chinese leader since the latest outbreaks.

Wen said authorities conducted a “massive culling of domestic poultry” and imposed strict quarantines. Local residents have been vaccinated, he reportedly said while in Moscow for a regional security meeting.

“China definitely can bring the bird flu under control through the above measures,” he said.

Health officials say the main cause of human infections is direct contact with poultry in slaughtering, butchering or cooking, or surfaces contaminated by their droppings.

On Tuesday, Roche’s Canadian branch announced that it was suspending private sales of Tamiflu in Canada until the flu season begins in December because soaring stockpile demand threatened the seasonal flu allocation.

Paul Brown, a vice president of Roche Canada, said they saw more demand for Tamiflu on one day last week than in all of 2004.

Some 40 countries are scrambling to create Tamiflu stockpiles. The World Health Organization recommends governments keep enough anti-viral drugs and regular human flu vaccines for at least 25 percent of their populations.

Roche has donated 3 million treatments to WHO for a global stockpile in case of a flu pandemic.