Dude, Where’s My Pandemic?

December 10, 2009

From the BBC:

The swine flu pandemic is “considerably less lethal” than feared, chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson says.

A study led by Sir Liam found a death rate of just 0.026% in those infected, the British Medical Journal reported.

…The findings, reported by the British Medical Journal, come as the number of new cases continues to fall.

In England there were 11,000 last week – down from 22,000 the previous week…Scotland also saw a fall from 12,300 to 8,900, while numbers in Northern Ireland and Wales have always remained much lower…The UK death toll now stands at 283.

Now we already kind of knew this, courtesy of earlier news reports, but the hysteria did rather have a momentum of its own (or the drug companies, but that’s another story).

In September, academic Dr Marc Lipsitch reported that the lethality of the pandemic was less than 1 percent, “comparable to a seasonal flu epidemic” and qualifying as a “category one pandemic” – the lowest category on the U.S.’ official scale.

By comparison, the famed 1918 outbreak had a lethality of more than 2 percent.

The economic backstory (or the real story, we should now be saying) is that certain firms, chief amongst them Roche, have made a killing from this well, lack of dying. The firm’s Tamiflu drug has sold like surplus bacon, despite mounting evidence that it has no effect on flu-related complications.

Benefiting from the headlock that corporations like Roche exert on the  science which ostensibly regulates their products, Bloomberg reports that the firm “wouldn’t supply data from eight studies” according to an independent research group writing in the BMJ.

An analysis of 20 studies showed that Tamiflu, which is expected to generate 2.7 billion francs ($2.64 billion) in sales this year, eased and shortened symptoms if taken quickly. It found no clear evidence that the drug prevented lower respiratory tract infections or complications of influenza, according to the nonprofit research group in a review published in the British Medical Journal.

“We have multibillion-dollar public health policies in place that rely on evidence not available for independent analysis,” Tom Jefferson, the lead researcher from the Cochrane Collaboration in Rome, said in a telephone interview.

And that was excluding the findings of those reports that Roche won’t release. The really dangerous disease seems to be not pandemic flu, but endemic corporate power. As the editor of the BMJ, Fiona Godlee writes, “the studies originally used to establish the benefits of Tamiflu were written by Roche employees and paid consultants, under-reported serious side effects and failed to clearly identify all the authors.”

And, to recap, Tamiflu has produced $2.64 billion in revenues for Roche this year. A triumph for PR. A disaster for science. A yuletide miracle for the sentimentally inclined.


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