UPDATED: Cochrane study: Stockpiling Tamiflu, Relenza was $2B 'thrown down the drain'

Tamiflu capsules--Courtesy of Roche

Just weeks after a Roche-funded study was released backing its claim that its hit drug Tamiflu saved lives during the H1N1 swine flu epidemic of 2009, a new study finds no evidence that the product stops the spread of the flu or reduces its complications. The study was conducted by the nonprofit Cochrane Collaboration--a longtime critic of Tamiflu--and published Thursday in the British Medical Journal.

The Cochrane researchers examined trial data from both Roche ($RHHBY) and GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), maker of the rival drug Relenza. The U.S. and U.K. have spent a combined $2 billion stockpiling the drugs since the swine flu outbreak, according to Bloomberg. That money "has been thrown down the drain," said study co-author Carl Heneghan, a professor of evidence-based medicine at Oxford University, at a media briefing in London, Bloomberg reports.

The study examined 170,000 pages of data from 20 Tamiflu trials and 26 Relenza trials. The researchers found that the drugs reduced the length of flu symptoms by about a half a day, but the data was inconclusive on the question of whether they lowered the risk of complications, particularly pneumonia. The study reports that Tamiflu reduced the chance of pneumonia only slightly in adults and not at all in children. And it points out that the drug has caused side effects, including vomiting, delirium and loss of kidney function.

"The original evidence presented to government agencies around the world was incomplete," said Fiona Godlee, editor of the BMJ, at the press briefing, according to Reuters. BMJ worked with Cochrane on a four-year campaign to convince Roche to release all its Tamiflu data. "Why did no one else demand this level of scrutiny before spending such huge sums on one drug?" Godlee asked.

Barry Clinch, Roche's global development leader for Tamiflu, told Bloomberg the product's label clearly spells out the possible side effects and that the drug has been approved as safe and effective in more than 100 countries. "We stand behind our data and we stand behind our label," he said.

In March, The Lancet Respiratory Medicine released findings from a study Roche funded, which reported that treating patients with Tamiflu reduced the risk of death by 19% over no treatment at all. That may not be enough to get the drug back to its 2009 high, when stockpiling pushed sales beyond $3 billion. While Tamiflu sales rose 19% year-over-year in 2013, they reached just $726 million.

- access the BMJ study here
- here's the Bloomberg story
- read more at Reuters
- here's the Wall Street Journal's take (sub. req.)

Editor's Note: The story was updated to reflect that the study was funded by Roche and not conducted by the drugmaker.