Money, Pharma, Virus

No pharma-haters in a pandemic

May 1, 2009 — 12:25pm ET |
By Tracy Staton

It’s not often that we see a headline like this one: “Big Pharma Can Save Us.” Perhaps it takes the threat of a pandemic to remind folks how much good the pharma business can do–and does. For whatever reason, today’s wave of news on H1N1 influenza A (as we’re now supposed to call it, per WHO) is full of good tidings for drugmakers. Some of the “pharma-comes-to-our-aid” variety; some of the antiviral sales-boost variety, the sort we simply read as “cha-ching!” And presumably anti-flu drug makers Roche and GlaxoSmithKline do, too.

Along those lines, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced that the feds will buy another 13 million treatment courses to replenish the Strategic National Stockpile and beef it up a bit more. That’s $251 million worth of drug-buying, HHS said in a statement. “The…additional treatment courses will allow us to ..further ensure we are prepared to provide the American people with the treatments they need to stay healthy,” Sebelius said.

Meanwhile, many governments and government agencies have fallen behind on their own stockpiling efforts, the Washington Post reports. Twenty-seven U.S. states and the District of Columbia are short a total of 10 million doses. And federal agencies, which are expected to maintain their own supplies of antivirals, to make sure they–and society–continue to function in a full-blown pandemic, haven’t accumulated the drugs they need. For instance, the Postal Service, which could be essential in a pandemic, has no antivirals. None. Maine has none either, and it already has three confirmed cases of the new H1N1 virus. If you look globally, dozens of countries aren’t prepared with supplies of antiviral meds. Millions more treatment courses would be needed to supply patients in a “full-blown crisis,” the Post points out.

No wonder Roche and GlaxoSmithKline are ramping up production of Tamiflu and Relenza. And no wonder a Forbes columnist is waxing appreciative of drugmakers today. Antiviral meds are the key tools for public health officials trying to slow down the virus’s spread long enough for vaccine makers to do their thing. Indeed, some 400,000 of the treatment courses HHS has deployed are now en route to Mexico, in an effort to trip up H1N1. “Flu viruses don’t stop at the border, and it is imperative we do whatever we can to slow the spread of the virus,” Sebelius said.

If a new wave of H1N1 hits in the fall–which is what happened with the 1918 pandemic–it could come roaring back stronger, virologists are saying. With this new strain spreading in Asia, where highly pathogenic H5N1 is active, there’s the potential for it to pick up genetic material that makes it more virulent. That would be the “full-blown crisis” the Post mentioned. You can bet that even more people would be crying for pharma’s help then. Let’s hope we don’t have to get to that point for another round of feel-good news.

– see the statement from HHS
– read the Washington Post story
– check out the article from the Wall Street Journal
– see the Forbes column

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