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Bird flu drug Web sales spark counterfeit fears

Swiss drug maker Roche urged consumers not to buy its flu drug Tamiflu over the Internet to avoid the risk of purchasing potentially counterfeit pills.
/ Source: Reuters

Swiss drug maker Roche urged consumers on Friday not to buy its flu drug Tamiflu over the Internet to avoid the risk of purchasing potentially counterfeit pills as they build stockpiles in case of a bird flu pandemic.

With experts predicting that millions could die if the bird flu strain H5N1 mutates into a human flu virus, some consumers appear to be building up their own reserves of the drug, doubling up on governments’ efforts to prepare for a pandemic.

Roche, the Swiss maker of Tamiflu, warned consumers not to buy the prescription-only pill over the Internet but to get advice from their doctor and pick the drug up from a reputable pharmacy.

“We cannot vouch for Internet sales,” David Reddy, Roche’s executive in charge of sales of Tamiflu in preparation for a possible pandemic, told Reuters.

“We are aware there are Internet sales advertised and we are looking into these right now.

“In some countries ... it may be valid product, but there is the possibility that some material could be counterfeit. Our biggest concern is people who don’t know about the safety features on the packaging and who may buy material from the Internet which is purported to be Tamiflu but isn’t.”

Reddy said the trade could pose serious medical risks.

Tamiflu, known as oseltamivir, is neither a vaccine nor a cure for influenza and as such it can only help ease illness in infected people if taken relatively soon after symptoms appear.

The H5N1 avian flu virus has infected more than 100 people, killing at least 60 in four Asian nations since late 2003.

British firm GlaxoSmithKline makes another recommended anti-viral drug, Relenza, and is also working on a H5N1 vaccine, as are France’s Sanofi-Aventis and U.S. firm Chiron.

Governments around the world have bought up stockpiles of Tamiflu at discount prices on the advice of the World Health Organization (WHO), ordering enough of the drug to cover up to a quarter of their population.

Roche has also donated enough of the drug to the health body to treat 3 million people in the event of an outbreak.

Web sites in Britain and Europe advertise a package of 10 of the yellow and white capsules -- enough to treat regular flu --for prices ranging from an equivalent of $74 to $140.

Pharmacists in Switzerland have also reported a recent run on the drug, suggesting worried consumers are arming themselves against a potential pandemic.

“Tamiflu sales jumped in the months of July, August and September,” said Valeria Dora, a Zurich pharmacist and president of the Swiss Pharmacists’ Association.

Dora’s pharmacy has already sold 7 times as much Tamiflu in 2005 as in 2004 as a whole, she said.