Flu-strain mutation unlocks sales opp for antiviral makers Roche, GSK

The flu season's most common viral strain has mutated, meaning this year's shots may not fully protect against it. But the so-called "drifted" strain may open up an opportunity for antiviral makers like Roche's ($RHHBY) Genentech and GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), with the CDC urging earlier use of anti-flu drugs to combat potentially severe symptoms.

Tamiflu capsules--Courtesy of Roche

More than half the samples analyzed from this year's dominant strain, influenza A H3N2, are slightly different genetically from the version of the strain included in current flu vaccines, The Wall Street Journal reports. While it's too late to make any changes to the vaccine, officials suggest doctors prescribe products like Roche's Tamiflu and GSK's Relenza early to patients without the virus' symptoms instead of waiting for flu test results.

"We strongly encourage doctors not to wait for a test," CDC Director Tom Frieden told the paper. The meds usually reach fewer than one in 6 severely ill flu patients, he said, often because physicians wait for a positive flu test. But antivirals, which are most effective when taken within 48 hours after symptoms show up, will be critical in fighting the mutated strain, likely reducing the length of illness by about a day.

The recommendation could help boost Tamiflu and Relenza sales at a time when demand is down and critics are questioning their worth. After getting a huge boost during 2009's swine flu pandemic--Tamiflu sales hit $3 billion--sales of the Roche product sat at 635 million Swiss francs ($726.5 million) in 2013.

And lately, critics of the drugs have been making their voices heard. Just weeks after a Roche-funded study claimed Tamiflu cut the risk of death in H1N1 patients by 19% over no treatment at all, a study from the nonprofit Cochrane Collaboration found no evidence that the product stops the spread of the flu or reduces its complications.

Money spent stockpiling the drugs since the 2009 outbreak--a combined $2 billion between the U.S. and the U.K.--"has been thrown down the drain," co-author Carl Heneghan said in April.

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