Swiss drug maker Roche has stopped supplying the bird flu drug Tamiflu to private doctors and pharmacies in Hong Kong, saying it will only fill orders for government stockpiles.
In a notice issued to major pharmacies on Nov. 1 and seen by Reuters on Friday, the company said it was temporarily suspending all supplies of Tamiflu to major pharmacies.
“Current stocks will be used for treatment during the peak of influenza,” the company said in the statement. Medical industry sources said supplies to private doctors were also suspended.
The move follows similar temporary suspensions by Roche in the United States and Canada to head off hoarding by consumers worried about the spread of bird flu as the world heads into the start of the influenza season.
Governments around the world are rushing to stockpile Tamiflu in preparation for a feared bird flu pandemic if the virus begins spreading easily from person to person. It does not cure bird flu but can reduce its severity and might slow the spread of a pandemic.
Worried residents and companies in Hong Kong have been sweeping Tamiflu off pharmacy shelves in recent weeks as more people in Asia died from the disease and the H5N1 virus spread to birds in eastern Europe.
Pharmacists report they have also been running out of a another antiviral drug, Relenza, which is produced by GlaxoSmithkline.
The H5N1 virus made its first known jump to humans in Hong Kong in 1997. Six of the 18 people infected in the city died.
The disease has killed 62 people in other parts of Asia since re-emerging in the region in 2003.
The Standard newspaper quoted Health Secretary York Chow as saying on Thursday that Roche’s supply of the drug to public hospitals and clinics would not be affected.
Hong Kong’s government plans to amass a large stockpile of 20 million tablets by 2007 but that would only be enough to protect about 30 percent of its population of nearly seven million.
The government estimates that an outbreak would affect about 15 percent of the population, based on past epidemics.