Some people may remember the Great Swine Flu Epidemic of several years ago. Paramedics and other frontline operators were wearing tyvek suits on a daily basis and the febrile media was spending most of its time freaking out about the end of the world. We were all excited in particular about Tamiflu, a medication which was supposed to shorten the course of the illness and save lives.
Except that Roche, the company that makes it, was distinctly tardy about releasing actually useful science about the effectiveness of the drug. Rather, they selectively released flattering information which painted their drug in a good light, and governments around the world spent hundreds of millions of dollars stockpiling it. With no good evidence.
Well, after a lot of prodding, Roche has finally released the evidence. And it is… shall we say… somewhat lacking. Ben Goldacre, British doctor and journalist, and champion of integrity in medical research, has written about it:
So does Tamiflu work? From the Cochrane analysis – fully public – Tamiflu does not reduce the number of hospitalisations. There wasn’t enough data to see if it reduces the number of deaths. It does reduce the number of self-reported, unverified cases of pneumonia, but when you look at the five trials with a detailed diagnostic form for pneumonia, there is no significant benefit. It might help prevent flu symptoms, but not asymptomatic spread, and the evidence here is mixed. It will take a few hours off the duration of your flu symptoms. But all this comes at a significant cost of side-effects. Since percentages are hard to visualise, we can make those numbers more tangible by taking the figures from the Cochrane review, and applying them. For example, if a million people take Tamiflu in a pandemic, 45,000 will experience vomiting, 31,000 will experience headache and 11,000 will have psychiatric side-effects. Remember, though, that those figures all assume we are only giving Tamiflu to a million people: if things kick off, we have stockpiled enough for 80% of the population. That’s quite a lot of vomit.
Seems like our governments fell for it hook, line and sinker. Have a read of the Cochrane review here and prepare to weep.