The pharmaceutical company Roche Holding AG said yesterday that it has temporarily suspended shipments of Tamiflu to private buyers in the United States to ensure that enough of the antiviral drug will be available this winter for patients with seasonal influenza.
U.S. companies and large organizations may be hoarding the drug amid fears that the H5N1 strain of avian flu, which is distinct from the seasonal human version, could mutate into a strain transmittable among people and set off a global pandemic, a spokeswoman said. The bird flu strain has been spreading among poultry and wild birds from Asia to Europe.
"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 E. Wilson, spokeswoman at Roche's U.S. offices in Nutley, N.J.
Meanwhile, the Senate, increasingly concerned with the possibility of a deadly influenza pandemic, approved nearly $8 billion yesterday to help the government stockpile vaccines and other drugs to fight the disease.
Roche officials had said they were limiting shipments to pharmacies to thwart hoarding by individuals worried about a possible pandemic of avian flu.
The Swiss drug giant emphasized that the suspension will not affect governmental orders to build up national stockpiles of Tamiflu, which drug experts believe to be the best defense against a pandemic.
Also yesterday, the U.S. government said it has awarded Chiron Corp. a $62 million contract to manufacture a vaccine for bird flu.
The Chiron vaccine contract, announced by Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, is the second awarded by the government. Earlier, Sanofi-Aventis won a $100 million contract to produce shots to protect against bird flu.
It was not clear how many shots the two companies would produce, because dosages are still being worked out.
Prescriptions for Tamiflu last week were nearly quadruple what they were a year before, according to Verispan, a Pennsylvania-based company that monitors pharmacy sales. Some health departments and physicians groups are urging consumers, doctors and even school districts not to stockpile the drug.
Tamiflu seems to offer some protection to people against the type of flu that has devastated Asian poultry flocks and is spreading to birds in Europe. Bird flu has killed more than 60 people in Asia over the past two years.
While the U.S. government has not advised Americans on the issue of personal stockpiling, the American Medical Association warned against it and said the misuse of Tamiflu could lead to drug-resistant flu strains.