Roche and GSK set for sales growth in this year's fast-spreading flu epidemic

Tamiflu capsules--Courtesy of Roche

Bad flu seasons often mean increased sales for drugmakers producing influenza drugs, and this year promises to be no different. Already, companies such as Roche ($RHHBY) and GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) appear to be benefiting from a fast-spreading virus in the U.S.

As Fortune reports, drug store giant Walgreens' ($WAG) monthly sales in December 2014 jumped 10.2% year over year to $7.92 million, gains the company attributes to increased demand for antiviral drugs like Roche's Tamiflu. Both Tamiflu and GSK's flu-fighter Relenza charted gains elsewhere in late 2014 as well, setting the stage for higher sales in the coming year. Tamiflu sales in Q3 jumped 3% to 372 million Swiss francs, thanks in part to pandemic stockpiling in Europe. Sales of rival product Relenza more than doubled in the third quarter to £41 million, an increase GSK primarily attributes to government stockpiling of the drug in Japan.

And if sales from past flu seasons are any indication--including 2009, when the virus reached pandemic status--Roche and GSK could enjoy more growth for their products in the coming year. During 2009's H1N1 swine flu outbreak, Tamiflu sales skyrocketed to 3.2 billion Swiss francs ($3.15 billion) due to increased demand. GSK's Relenza posted sales of £720 million ($1 billion) in 2009, up from £57 ($86 million) million in 2008.

The drugs could also get a boost from a recent flu-strain mutation, which could make vaccines for the virus less effective. Last month, the CDC urged doctors not to wait for flu test results to treat patients and instead suggested prescribing products like Relenza and Tamiflu at the first sign of symptoms.

But Roche and GSK face some hurdles on their road to increased sales for flu products. Weeks after a Roche-funded study found that Tamiflu reduced the risk of death in patients by 19% over no treatment at all, a new study published in the British Medical Journal introduced evidence to the contrary. Researchers at the nonprofit Cochrane Collaboration--a longtime critic of Roche's handling of Tamiflu data--looked at Tamiflu and Relenza trials and concluded that there was no proof that the drugs reduced the length of flu symptoms or lowered the risk of complications. The $2 billion spent by the U.S. and U.K. to stockpile the drugs "has been thrown down the drain," study co-author Carl Heneghan said at an earlier media briefing in London.

Roche stood by its product, claiming that Tamiflu's label clearly lists possible side effects and that the drug is approved as safe in effective in more than 100 countries. "We stand behind our data and we stand behind our label," Barry Clinch, Roche's global development leader for Tamiflu, said at the time.

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