Oseltamivir (Tamiflu, Roche) has been downgraded by the World Health Organization (WHO) in the biennial review of its list of essential medicines.
A WHO expert committee removed Tamiflu from its list of “core” medicines, relegating it to the “complementary” list, a category used for drugs with consistently higher costs or less attractive cost-effectiveness.
This represents the latest blow to a drug whose sales hit $4 billion in 2009, riding on the back of worldwide stockpiling during the swine flu pandemic.
The spectacular rise and slow fall of Tamiflu is a cautionary tale worth remembering, if only to protect us from ourselves, the next time the public stampedes to pour money into the coffers of private industry.
Don’t forget; among the newspaper headlines screaming at politicians to stockpile Tamiflu in 2009, there was no shortage of doctors’ voices criticising any delay in access to the drug. Plenty of public health advocates—nearly all those with any influence—got it wrong, and we front-line clinicians were swept along.
The Tamiflu provided free to my Aboriginal health clinic provided the only opportunity in my entire career to stride out into my waiting room, spectacularly arrayed in gown, gloves and mask, to administer a drug to people who were mildly unwell with a fever. For two months I felt like I was on the set of the film, Contagion.
As it turns out, for my patients who did indeed have swine flu, the drug I so dramatically administered would have shortened their symptoms by just half a day, and not done a thing to prevent either complications or hospitalisation.
We only know of the extent of our mistake thanks to the dogged persistence of a few Cochrane reviewers, and the support of The BMJ. These folk noticed an anomaly that had eluded governments all around the globe, whose advisers were allowed to divert hundreds of millions of dollars from other public programs. Continue reading