Tamiflu stockpiles released as flu cases climb

A Roche employee prepares packs of Tamiflu capsules for shipment Keystone

The number of people being tested in Switzerland for the swine flu A virus, H1N1, climbed slightly in Switzerland on Tuesday from 20 to 23.

This content was published on May 5, 2009 - 20:30

The Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) said it was preparing to ship roughly 2.4 million courses of the antiviral drug, Tamiflu, to 72 countries "most in need", including Mexico.

"Part of the stock will be dispatched today [Tuesday]," said Fadela Chaib, a WHO spokeswoman in Geneva.

Swiss pharmaceutical concern, Roche, which owns the rights to Tamiflu, said it was increasing its production of the drug. The company had donated a large stockpile of the antiviral to the United Nations in 2006 for use in the event of a pandemic.

The drugs will be shipped from three main centres around the globe: Basel, Maryland and Dubai.

Meanwhile, GlaxoSmithKline, the world's second-largest pharmaceutical company, said it too was upping production of Relenza, an inhalable antiviral drug. It, along with Tamiflu, has proven effective in combating the spread of the H1N1 virus behind the so-called swine flu outbreak.

Day care possibly infected

In Switzerland the number of suspected cases has affected nine of the country's 26 cantons, including Geneva, Zurich, Bern, and Aargau, the home of a 19-year-old man who had travelled from Mexico and became the first confirmed case in the country.

The Federal Health Office said on Tuesday that it had received word of 68 suspected cases of H1N1 infections so far, including a new case at a children's day care in canton Vaud. The facility was placed under quarantine for the time being, said Patrick Mathys, a Federal Health Office representative.

Doctors have ruled out the virus in 44 of Switzerland's total cases, including those for two army recruits in Fribourg who were hospitalised on the weekend after they complained of flu symptoms.

Military officials had quarantined 250 people at an army barracks in western Switzerland after the soldiers took ill, but they lifted the measure on Tuesday afternoon after doctors confirmed neither had been infected with H1N1.

One of the recruits was scheduled to be released from hospital on Tuesday or Wednesday, military officials said. The other recruit's condition had not improved enough for him to be released.

Taking its toll

WHO officials confirmed that the virus has now claimed 30 lives around the world, up from 26 deaths published in an earlier report on Tuesday morning. Most of the dead are in Mexico, where 590 suspected cases have led to 29 deaths.

The total number of people now believed to be infected worldwide stands at 1,447 in 21 countries, with Portugal being the newest confirmed nation to be hit.

"We are continuing to see an increase in the number of cases reported by countries," said Keiji Fukada, coordinator of the global influenza programme at the WHO.

The economic toll has also been notable, particularly in Mexico and the United States, two of the more severely hit nations.

Mexican Finance Minister Agustin Carstens said the outbreak there would likely lead to a 0.3-0.5 percentage point drop in his country's economic growth this year. That means the government could be facing a ten billion-peso loss in taxes (SFr860 million).

Pork producers in the United States could be losing as much as $2.5 million (SFr2.82 million) a day on the misconception that swine flu can be transmitted through pork consumption, the American National Pork Producers Council has estimated.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

Confirmed sickened worldwide: 1,447 people
Deaths worldwide: 30
802 ill in Mexico
403 ill in US
140 ill in Canada
57 ill in Spain
27 ill in Britain
9 ill in Germany
6 ill in New Zealand
5 ill in Italy

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Anti-viral drug Tamiflu is one of the first defences against the outbreak of an influenza pandemic. It was effective against bird flu and the WHO has cleared it for use against swine flu.

Roche ramped up production of the drug in 2005 at the outbreak of avian flu, but cut back in 2007 as governments and health organisations scaled back their stockpiling programmes.

The WHO currently has enough Tamiflu – or oseltamivir – to treat five million people, while various countries also hold stockpiles.

Roche could scale up its production to produce some 400 million treatments a year, but there would be an eight-month delay until the first course reached the market.

Roche also has agreements with drug makers in South Africa, China and India allowing them to produce Tamiflu. Roche has three million courses in its own warehouses and previously donated two million courses to WHO for use in under-developed countries.

Another drug that has been recognised as an effective treatment is Relenza, produced by British company GlaxoSmithKline.

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