Dec 20, 2005 (CIDRAP News) US customs agents have seized more than 50 shipments of fake oseltamivir (Tamiflu), the antiviral drug being stockpiled in preparation for a possible influenza pandemic, according to reports published yesterday.
Customs officials said the first package was intercepted Nov 26 at a mail facility near San Francisco International Airport, the Associated Press (AP) reported. Agents have seized 51 more packages since then, each containing up to 50 counterfeit capsules labeled as "generic Tamiflu," the report said.
Since Roche is the only manufacturer of the drug, generic Tamiflu doesn't exist, said David Elder, head of the Food and Drug Adminstration's Office of Enforcement, as quoted by Agence France-Presse (AFP).
"These are people who are trying to profit from heightened concerns about bird flu in this country," Elder said.
The capsules contained none of oseltamivir's active ingredients, and officials were running tests to learn what they did contain, the AP reported. Elder said initial tests pointed to vitamin C.
"At this point, we haven't found anything harmful," Elder told AFP. "The harm comes from people believing they are being protected from the flu. They are not getting the benefit they expect."
Information on the packages was in Chinese, but it was unclear where the drugs came from, Elder reported. Asian suppliers sent them to individuals who ordered them online, Roxanne Hercules of US Customs and Border Protection told the AP.
In related news, the World Health Organization's (WHO's) top flu expert warned Dec 16 that governments are counting too heavily on Tamiflu to protect their populations from a flu pandemic, according to Bloomberg News.
Nations are investing far more in stockpiling Tamiflu than in developing vaccines that might offer protection from a pandemic virus, Klaus Stohr, head of the WHO's global influenza program, told Bloomberg in an interview in Washington, DC.
"Globally it's unbalanced," Stohr said. "There would be more bang for the buck if more were invested globally in pandemic vaccine development."
He added, "There's been so much excitement about stockpiling of antivirals, that this is going to be the silver bullet, this is going to be the solution to the whole problem. There are uncertainties we have to start communicating, and we haven't done that."
Stohr said studies show the drug protects about 70% of people from the flu if they take it before being infected, but only about 40% benefit it they take the drug within 48 hours after infection.
In November President Bush asked Congress for $1 billion to spend on antiviral drugs, as part of his $7.1 billion request for pandemic preparedness. This week the House voted to appropriate $3.8 billion for pandemic preparations, but left it to the administration to decide how much of that to spend on antivirals. The House-passed bill was awaiting action by the Senate.