|Tamiflu capsules--Courtesy of Roche|
Governments around the world have been stockpiling Roche's ($RHHBY) Tamiflu to protect their citizens in the event of a flu pandemic--a practice that has been questioned by critics who say there's not enough evidence the drug works. Now, Roche has fresh data showing Tamiflu saved lives during the H1N1 swine flu outbreak of 2009.
The study, funded by Roche and published in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine, found that treating patients with neuraminidase inhibitors--of which Tamiflu is the leading choice--reduced the risk of death by 19% over no treatment at all. Patients who were treated within two days of developing symptoms dropped their risk of death by half, compared with those who delayed or did not take Tamiflu, according to a press release from The Lancet. The data came from records of more than 29,000 patients in 38 countries.
Roche has been under fire since 2009, primarily from the nonprofit Cochrane Collaboration, which pressured the company to release all its data on Tamiflu so there could be an informed debate on the clinical value of the flu fighter. The dispute was laid bare in the pages of the British Medical Journal, and Cochrane pushed for an all-out boycott of Tamiflu. In late 2012, Roche said it handed over thousands of pages of records on the product to Cochrane and offered to set up an advisory board to review all the data.
The lead author of the new study, Jonathan Nguyen-Van-Tam of the University of Nottingham in the U.K., said in The Lancet statement that he believed the data would be of valuable assistance to governments deciding whether to refresh their Tamiflu stockpiles. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also backed the study. In a comment linked to the publication, the CDC's Alicia Fry said, "As expected, early treatment seems to be optimal, and treatment shouldn't be delayed by even one day to wait for diagnostic test results."
Tamiflu demand is way down from 2009, when the pandemic pushed sales of the product to $3 billion, and a two-week shortfall caused by manufacturing difficulties in January have raised some concerns about first-quarter sales. Still, the product remains a growth driver for Roche: Tamiflu sales rose 19% year-over-year in 2013 to 635 million Swiss francs ($726.5 million). Renewed stockpiling could give it a bigger boost.