Region unprepared for bird flu

Pharmaceutical giant Roche has admitted the region is not protected against the killer bird flu virus, despite the fact that its blockbuster drug Tamiflu is being stockpiled across Europe.

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By  Stuart Qualtrough and Rhys Jones Published  October 9, 2005

The Swiss-based drug maker markets the only antiviral known to be effective against the lethal threat of the ever-looming flu pandemic. But despite calls by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to secure stocks of the drug, the Middle East is likely to be without an effective supply until at least March next year. Governments across Europe have already secured millions of doses of the life-saving drug, which works by reducing the symptoms and the risk of a carrier passing on the virus. The UK government alone has bought 14.6 million doses of the drug at a cost of US$250 million. But authorities across the GCC have delayed their reaction to the impending health crisis and are now at the back of the line to receive supplies of the drug. “Unfortunately we cannot guarantee the governments of this region that we will be able to protect their populations,” Ekkehard Betsch, director of Roche Middle East, told Arabian Business. “That is for a number of reasons, one being production capacity and also the orders were not placed at the same time as from other countries. If there is a pandemic and a government hasn’t stockpiled the drug, it would be impossible for us to start supplying unlimited quantities to them,” he added. Last week a WHO report estimated the number of people who could die from the anticipated viral outbreak was between 2 million and 7.4 million. The Gulf is at particular risk from the virus, as wild migratory birds that frequently pass through the area are known to transmit it. Since 2003, it has swept through poultry and wildlife in Asia, killing huge numbers of birds and leading to more than 60 human deaths. Experts fear a new variant capable of triggering the deadly pandemic will evolve if the avian flu virus, known as H5N1, combines with a human strain of influenza. This could happen if a human contracts both infections at the same time. It is feared the new variant would spread easily and quickly, killing large numbers of people, whose immune systems would not be primed to cope with infection. The survival rate of avian flu is currently just 50%, although the antiviral drug Tamiflu greatly increases the chances of fighting off the infection. But there are not enough courses of the drug left and future supplies have already been secured elsewhere around the world. To become an effective weapon against the virus spread, Tamiflu needs to be administered to between 15% and 20% of a country's population. The Roche chief said the UAE government was one purchaser of the drug, although the first deliveries would not start arriving until December and a meaningful stock was not possible until March. “Qatar and Oman have put orders in while Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi are in the process. Lebanon has placed an order and Egypt is also close so most of the countries in the region are on the bandwagon,” Betsch said. “We have recommended stockpiling Tamiflu to all the individual governments. Some countries in the area have started this process and they will start getting deliveries in individual instalments at the end of the year,” he added. John Oxford, professor of virology at St. Bartholomew’s and the Royal London School of Medicine, said it is no longer a matter of whether the pandemic will emerge, but when. And he believes governments around the world should have already created a stockpile of the Roche antiviral drug. “These drugs act against every known influenza virus. There is no excuse for governments not to have them,” he said. “There will be a mad rush for this medication if this flu arrives on the scene. It will be pretty chaotic. It will be a dereliction of duty not to have stockpiled these drugs,” he concluded.

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