Two months ago, we pointed out in our story on flu in The Atlantic that the antiviral drug Tamiflu might not be as effective or safe as many patients, doctors, and governments think. The drug has been widely prescribed since the first cases of H1N1 flu surfaced last spring, and the U.S. government has spent more than $1.5 billion stockpiling it since 2005 as part of the nation’s pandemic preparedness plan.
Now it looks as if our concerns were correct, and the nation may have put more than a billion dollars into the medical equivalent of a mirage. This week, the British medical journal BMJ published a multi-part investigation that confirms that the scientific evidence just isn’t there to show that Tamiflu prevents serious complications, hospitalization, or death in people that have the flu. The BMJ goes further to suggest that Roche, the Swiss company that manufactures and markets Tamiflu, may have misled governments and physicians. In its defense, Roche stated that the company “has never concealed (or had the intention to conceal) any pertinent data.”
The BMJ’s investigation began innocently enough, with an update of a review by the Cochrane Collaboration, a widely-respected international consortium of researchers who periodically examine the medical literature to assess the safety and effectiveness of various treatments. Roche has claimed that its drug reduces hospital admissions by 61% in patients who were otherwise healthy before they got the flu. It has also said that Tamiflu reduces such complications as bronchitis, pneumonia, and sinusitis by 67%, and lower respiratory tract infections requiring antibiotics by 55%. A 2006 Cochrane review of Tamiflu came to similar conclusions—based largely on a paper that looked at ten studies, all of them funded by the company.