Report: Financial conflicts sway studies of flu fighters Tamiflu and Relenza

Tamiflu capsules--Courtesy of Roche

A debate has raged over the past couple of years over whether world governments are wasting money by stockpiling Roche's ($RHHBY) Tamiflu and GlaxoSmithKline's ($GSK) Relenza to help combat a potential flu epidemic. At issue is a tough question: Are the drugs effective enough to justify the estimated $2 billion spent to stockpile them?

Efforts to answer that question may have been clouded by financial ties between independent researchers and the companies that make the drugs. According to new research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, 7 out of 8 studies involving researchers with financial conflicts of interest came to positive conclusions about the effectiveness of "neuraminidase inhibitors" such as Tamiflu and Relenza. By contrast, only 5 of the 29 studies conducted by scientists who didn't receive money from the makers of the flu fighters had favorable outcomes.

"This is a huge discrepancy," said Florence Bourgeois, a senior author of the study and a professor of pediatrics at Boston Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, in an interview with Bloomberg. Bourgeois declined to comment on the exact nature of the conflicts of interest except to say they raise "concerns and questions around how this came about."

The Annals is not the first medical journal to make a stink over Tamiflu and Relenza. In 2009, the nonprofit Cochrane Group in Britain took to the pages of the British Medical Journal, demanding that Roche release the results of Tamiflu studies that had been under wraps. The BMJ's editor, Fiona Godlee, sided with Cochrane, and in 2012, Roche handed over the data.

The brawl continued, growing particularly contentious this April. That's when Cochrane published a study in BMJ examining 170,000 pages of data from 20 Tamiflu trials and 26 Relenza trials, and concluding that the data could not answer the question of whether the drugs reduce the risk of serious complications of the flu like pneumonia. One of the study's authors declared that the $2 billion spent stockpiling the drugs was money "thrown down the drain."

Roche fought back, posting a reply to the BMJ stating that the Cochrane researchers didn't seem to understand how Tamiflu works, and furthermore they failed to include all the relevant data from the studies the company released.

The tussle happened a few weeks after researchers who had received funding from Roche published a paper in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine showing that patients treated with neuraminidase inhibitors faced a 19% lower risk of death than patients who received no flu treatments.

Roche isn't apologizing for maintaining financial ties with researchers. "Our ability to engage with doctors, researchers and opinion leaders in robust dialogue on approved and investigational medicines is vital to our research and development efforts," a spokeswoman for Roche's Genentech unit told Bloomberg. "Genentech's professional relationships with experts are within all existing pharmaceutical industry and regulatory guidelines."

A GSK spokesman declined to comment on this latest study but told Bloomberg that the company believes Relenza can reduce the duration of flu symptoms.

Christine Laine, editor in chief of the Annals, told Bloomberg it's a well-known phenomenon that researchers with financial conflicts frequently report positive study results. And though she's aware that conflicting findings such as those surrounding Tamiflu and Relenza can be confusing for patients and physicians, she said everyone should "be aware of what the potential conflicts of interest are of the people that are doing the scholarly work."

- access the Annals article here (sub. req.)
- here's the Bloomberg story