GENEVA — Pharmaceutical company Roche Holding said Thursday that it temporarily suspended shipments of Tamiflu to nongovernment recipients in the United States to ensure that enough of the antiviral drug will be available for the influenza season.
U.S. companies and large organizations apparently have been hoarding the drug -- which experts believe is most effective in treating bird flu -- amid the spread of the virus and fears it could mutate into a strain transmittable among people. On Thursday, Russia announced a new outbreak of the deadly H5N1 virus among poultry.
"We've seen recently some very large purchases at the wholesale level [from] companies or large entities who are possibly hoarding Tamiflu right now," said Darien Wilson, a spokeswoman at the Swiss drug giant's U.S. offices in Nutley, N.J.
Meanwhile, federal officials moved Thursday to boost spending for efforts to prepare for bird flu. The Senate voted to invest $8 billion on preparations in case the influenza strain ever sparks a worldwide epidemic.
Also Thursday, federal health officials awarded Chiron Corp. of Emeryville, Calif., a $62.5-million contract to further develop a bird-flu vaccine. Last month they awarded $100 million to Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccine unit of Paris-based Sanofi-Aventis, for similar work.
Roche emphasized that the temporary suspension would not affect Washington's orders to build up a national stockpile of Tamiflu, the drug that experts believe to be the best defense against a possible flu pandemic.
"We have ... orders with governments and we will fulfill them," said Alexander Klauser, a Swiss-based Roche spokesman. "It is important that this is seen separately from the pandemic offers."
He said Roche's U.S. management proceeded with the suspension because of the increased global demand for Tamiflu.
Roche executives in Switzerland, Germany and Canada already had disclosed that they were limiting distribution to pharmacies because they didn't want individual people hoarding the drug.
"The priority is that there is enough Tamiflu for the people who need it at the start of the influenza season," Klauser told Associated Press. "At the moment, there is no influenza currently circulating."