Half A Billion Pounds 'Wasted' On Anti-Flu Drugs
Flu drugs stockpiled by the government for use in a pandemic have little benefit, according to researchers who have carried out a comprehensive new analysis.
The Department of Health has spent £473m on the antiviral medicine Tamiflu - and another £136m on the similar drug Relenza - since 2006.
There are enough doses in storage to treat more than half the population.
But researchers from the independent Cochrane Collaboration and the British Medical Journal (BMJ), who have been given access to the full clinical trial data for the first time, conclude there is "no good evidence" that either drug reduces flu-related hospital admissions or the complications of the disease, such as pneumonia.
And they add that claims that they prevent people spreading the flu virus to others are "unproven".
Craig Heneghan, a doctor at the Cochrane Collaboration, said there was particular concern about Tamiflu because it increased nausea, vomiting, psychiatric events and kidney problems.
He told Sky News: "I am now clear this drug is not to be used in a pandemic situation."
The manufacturers have robustly defended their drugs, insisting that they are safe and effective.
The Department of Health has also underlined the importance of the antiviral stockpile.
The Cochrane Collaboration reviewed data from 20 clinical studies of Tamiflu and another 26 of Relenza.
They found they reduced the duration of flu symptoms by 16 hours, compared to dummy placebo pills.
Dr Fiona Godlee, Editor of the BMJ, urged the Department of Health to carefully consider the new evidence before refreshing the Tamiflu stock nearing its expiry date.
"If the government spends any more money on this drug they are not listening to the evidence," she said.
"I think it would be a strange decision to purchase more of this drug on the basis of the information we have available to us."
However, the Department of Health said the drug stockpile is a vital part of Britain's emergency response to a pandemic, as recommended by the World Health Organisation.
A spokesperson said: "Tamiflu is licensed around the world for the treatment of seasonal flu and is a licensed product with a proven record of safety, quality and efficacy.
"We regularly review all published data and will consider the Cochrane review closely."
UK medical director of Roche, Dr Daniel Thurley, said the company "stands behind the wealth of data for Tamiflu".
He added the researchers' methods were "unclear and inappropriate, and their conclusions could potentially have serious public health implications....(antiviral drugs) are a vital treatment option for patients with influenza".
A spokesperson for GSK said: "We were committed to giving the Cochrane team access to the data they required from the outset and we are pleased to have been able to support their research.
"We continue to believe the data from Relenza's clinical trial programme support its effectiveness against flu and that when used appropriately, in the right patient, it can reduce duration of flu symptoms. Relenza remains an important option for health professionals who are responsible for deciding when these medicines should be used."
Other doctors have also come to the drugs' defence.
Professor Wendy Barclay, of Imperial College London, said reducing symptoms by a day was significant.
"In the community this gets people back to work and school, and having the drugs available also serves as a safety net to treat people who get sick enough to go to hospital."