In a sign of growing travel industry concern about a possible global flu pandemic, Virgin Atlantic Chairman Richard Branson said Wednesday he had purchased 10,000 courses of medicine for the airline’s employees to use in the event of an outbreak.
At a news conference held in conjunction with a global health summit in New York, first reported on CNBC, Branson said he bought enough of the antiviral drug Tamiflu to treat up to 10,000 airline crew members, who he said would be on the front lines of any pandemic.
Branson had to buy the drug in Canada because manufacturer Hoffmann-La Roche has suspended shipments in the U.S. — precisely because it was concerned about such hoarding. One Canadian online pharmacy advertised a 10-pill course of Tamiflu Wednesday for C$80, which translates to $68 or a total of $680,000 in the unlikely event Branson paid retail.
Branson was unapologetic about his stockpiling, saying there is no doubt in his mind that any pandemic would ground airlines all over the world, CNBC reported.
Branson also said he was investigating the possibility of buying a machine, not further identified, that purportedly would be able to kill the flu virus aboard Virgin's aircraft, according to the CNBC report. He said he began assembling his company’s pandemic response plan six months ago.
In a statement issued in response to questions about the plan, London-based Virgin Atlantic said the bulk purchase of antiviral medication was made “as a purely precautionary measure.”
“Virgin Atlantic is closely monitoring the spread of avian flu and is in regular contact with the U.K. and U.S. governments,” the airline said in a statement. “At this stage there is no need to change any advice to passengers travelling with Virgin Atlantic or to alter any of the airline's procedures.”
Hoffmann-La Roche last week suspended U.S. shipments of Tamiflu, saying it would resume shipments when it sees increased incidence of the normal, seasonal flu this year.
The company said its decision was based on concerns that recent publicity about the possibility of an avian flu outbreak has caused companies to hoard the antiviral drug.
Hoffman-La Roche said it has doubled its production of Tamiflu capsules from last year’s level but wants to ensure there is enough to handle the regular seasonal demand.
The suspension “will help assure that people who need Tamiflu for this year’s seasonal flu will have access to it, while at the same time we move forward to deal with the threat of a worldwide pandemic of avian flu,” company chief executive officer George Abercrombie said in the statement last week.
Company spokesman Terry Hurley said in an e-mail Wednesday that Roche's Canadian unit has prioritized delivery of Tamiflu "to high-risk patients most at risk of developing serious complications due to seasonal influenza." Referring to Virgin's bulk purchase, Hurley said he was "not sure this request falls into that category."
Roche is affiliated with Swiss pharmaceuticals giant F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd.
The U.S. government Wednesday issued a detailed plan for responding to a possible global flu pandemic that would include travel restrictions, although those were not completely spelled out.
La Roche said Tuesday it is prepared to supply Tamiflu for the U.S. government stockpile. President Bush has said that he wants to stockpile enough antivirals to protect 20 million Americans against a pandemic flu strain.
Scientists say it is impossible to predict when the next pandemic will strike, but concern is rising that the Asian bird flu, called the H5N1 strain, might trigger the next one if it mutates so it can easily spread from person to person.
So far more than 100 people have contracted the disease, mostly after having come into close contact with poultry birds, and about 60 have died.
Tamiflu, a prescription drug, is the primary medication known to be effective against avian flu.
There currently is no vaccine available, although Bush Tuesday announced a plan to improve the nation’s vaccine production system as part of a $7.1 billion program to get ready for the next pandemic.