December 10, 2009.
GOVERNMENTS worldwide may have spent billions of dollars stockpiling Tamiflu for little benefit, after medical experts admitted they were wrong to conclude the flu-fighting drug could slash deaths and other complications.
The finding by an Australian-led team, published in the British Medical Journal yesterday, has called into question the effectiveness of Tamiflu -- whose manufacturers made billions during the swine flu pandemic -- and the system of drug evaluation relied on by regulators globally.
The review, initiated by Bond University dean of health sciences Chris del Mar, set out to conduct an update of the evidence for Tamiflu on behalf of the Cochrane Collaboration, considered the most reliable source of medical evidence worldwide.
A positive Cochrane review of Tamiflu was relied on by several governments in making their decision to buy the drug.
But what the researchers found overturned the previous conclusions, and raised questions about the reliability of clinical studies more widely.
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Contacted by a Japanese researcher who did not believe claims Tamiflu reduced complications, the researchers tried to verify the data -- and found much of it was never published by the drug's makers, and the conclusions could not be checked.
The authors of the paper said they had tried to obtain the missing information from the Swiss drugmaker Roche, but it had not been supplied.
Eight studies included in the previous review had been taken out of the data analysis. As a result, the lack of reliable information had "undermined previous findings for (Tamiflu's) prevention of complications from influenza", the researchers wrote.
BMJ editor-in-chief Fiona Godlee said the findings suggested governments worldwide "have spent billions on a drug the scientific community now finds itself unable to judge".
In a bulletin issued in October, Roche increased its estimate of full-year sales for Tamiflu in to 2.7 billion Swiss francs ($2.9bn), dropping to 700 million Swiss francs next year.
Earlier this year, the Australian government was claiming credit for having one of the world's biggest stockpiles of anti-flu drugs, including Tamiflu and the Australian-developed rival drug Relenza. The federal government allocated $123.8m in the 2004-05 budget for antiviral medications for pandemic flu, and another $166.5m in the 2008-09 budget for the replacement of expiring medicines and equipment in the national medical stockpile, which now includes 6.1 million courses of Tamiflu.
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Ageing declined to say how much the government had spent on Tamiflu.
Professor del Mar, who heads the Cochrane group for respiratory infections, admitted the organisation had "messed up".