WASHINGTON - Fears of bird flu are receding, and sales of the antiflu drug Tamiflu have slumped. Now its maker is offering a deal to US employers: pay an annual fee and reserve enough to protect every worker if a new super-flu strikes.
The plan disclosed yesterday comes as the US government also begins an effort to encourage many businesses to stockpile antiflu drugs in case of a pandemic. Those private stockpiles would supplement a national stockpile that contains enough doses to treat only a fraction of the population.
But stockpiling is a big upfront investment for a threat that may never arrive - and requires replacing supplies when doses expire. Roche Holding AG says its new plan would remove some of those barriers for companies otherwise interested in Tamiflu.
The US government, in an unusual move, congratulated Roche on the program and helped to publicize it. "We applaud them," said Tevi Troy, deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, which directs the nation's pandemic flu preparations. "Preparedness is a shared responsibility that extends across all levels of government and all levels of society."
Pandemics can strike when the easy-to-mutate flu virus shifts to a strain that people have never experienced. There is concern that the Asian bird flu known as H5N1 might trigger one if it acquires the ability to spread easily from person to person.
It would take months to custom-brew a vaccine against a new super-flu. So the government has stockpiled enough antiviral drugs, mostly Tamiflu, to treat 50 million people, and is urging states to purchase enough for 31 million more.
The antiviral drugs can also be used to prevent infection before a vaccine arrives. Until recently, federal health officials didn't recommend employer stockpiling for fear that there wasn't enough Tamiflu being produced to satisfy global demand during regular flu seasons, and to build up the pandemic stockpiles of the United States and other governments.
But Roche increased global production 15-fold - and US guidelines proposed this month not only say that employer stockpiling is feasible, but encourage businesses to set aside enough antiviral drugs to help their workers ward off infection and stay on the job.