Got Tamiflu?

About a month and a half ago or so, I was struck by an unusual request from a regular personal training client of mine. At the start of our session, he said,

“Go immediately to your doctor, and get yourself and your wife a prescription for a drug called Tamiflu.”

At the time, I was somewhat confused. What for? It happened to be the case that my client (who works at the United Nations) had been in meeting after meeting that week about the impending avian flu epidemic, and he’d mentioned that things were getting bad in Asia, and they were afraid it was going to spread.

How right they were.

The recent events in Asia and Europe foreshadow an influenza panic that has the potential to wipe out over a hundred million people if allowed to develop to fruition – i.e., if H5N1 (avian flu) mutates into a human-to-human strain. As a result, governments have been going crazy, all but beating down Swiss pharmaceutial Roche’s front door to obtain stockpiles of Tamiflu (oseltamivir), which as of this writing is the only known defense against the avian flu virus. Roche is a pharmaceutical giant, but it is only one company, and had announced that 1.) It only had so much production capacity, 2.) It was already contracting to deliver 20 million doses to the US Government, maybe, and 3.) Sorry, but no, it would NOT waive its patent rights to the Tamiflu recipe so that other pharmaceutical companies could produce generic versions of Tamiflu to combat a potential flu pandemic.

Well, as of last Tuesday Roche had finally agreed to license the rights to produce Tamiflu to desperate governments and other pharmaceuticals interested in boosting worldwide production. It looks as though we might actually be ready for the storm.

Or are we? Some skeptics rightly point out that putting all our eggs in one basket is an extremely shortsighted line of defense. Consider the case of the Vietnamese girl who died after the avian flu she was infected with mutated into a strain that was resistant to Tamiflu. If it happened once, so the argument goes, it can happen again, especially if you calculate the odds on over 100 million infections. Even if you do have the drug, its effectiveness is limited to within the first 48 hours of infection. So if you don’t quite get ahold of it in time…Scary stuff. Did I mention it takes as long as 12 months to synthesize Tamiflu?

What if your Tamiflu doesn’t even work?

So what can we do about this, other than stockpile Tamiflu doses of dubious quality and/or sell unopened doses of it to the highest bidder on Craigslist or eBay (I only wish that was a joke, but alas, the truth is stranger than fiction)? Well, there is hope. Efforts in Asia and Europe to control the spread of the disease (currently only through handling of infected birds) are making some headway, and the possibilities of other drugs (such as zanamivir) as front-line defenses against the bird flu are being explored.

A different client of mine remarked, “If you hear your chicken coughing and sniffling as it’s being brought out to the dinner table, excuse yourself and order a pizza.” Sounds like a plan, for now.

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