At a glance: Pharma industry prepares for potential bird flu crisis

We’ve all seen the coverage, but what anti-flu products are actually available?

Reports last weekend suggested various countries were negotiating with Roche to buy £1bn worth of its anti-viral drug Tamiflu. In March this year, long before avian flu was found in Romania and Turkey, the UK Government ordered 14.6 million courses of the treatment.

Roche UK insists it is doing nothing to actively promote the drug, although Cohn & Wolfe in London has been aiding its response to media interest, with associate director Jo Spadaccino leading the account. GlaxoSmith-Kline, meanwhile, says it has increased production of its own, less widely used, flu treatment Relenza.

But isn't there a new avian flu vaccine?
Not yet. Several companies are said to be developing products to target the H5N1 strain, which has killed more than half of the 117 people it has infected over the past two years in East Asia. Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccines business of Sanofi-Aventis, is sponsoring clinical trials of one vaccine in France. Meanwhile PowderMed, an Oxford-based company that specialises in DNA-based vaccines for viruses and some types of cancer, says its own version is due to start clinical trials in 2006, but is unlikely to be available for another four years.

So it is not promoting that yet?
No, but Northbank Communications is handling PR for PowderMed and account director Adam Michael says PR efforts are concentrated on understanding of the issues and how drugs will fit into a co-ordinated plan to prevent a pandemic. PowderMed CEO Clive Dix has appeared on Newsnight, Channel 4 News and Sky News talking about the problem.

And what about other pharma outfits?
Cambridge-based biotech firm Acambis made a splash with the news that it was developing a flu vaccine that may have the potential to guard against pandemics, but Lyndsay Wright, the company's vice-president of comms and investor relations, calls it 'a very early stage research project, not something we are promoting'.

What happens next?
The Government was due to reveal its updated avian flu 'preparedness' plan this week, after PRWeek went to press. Chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson has already said that 50,000 people could die in the UK if there was an outbreak of the human strain of the virus.

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