Government spent £400 million on flu drug that may not work

The government has spent over £400 million on stocks of an antiviral drug that may not even work, MPs warned today.

The case for storing the antiviral drug Tamiflu, for use in a flu pandemic is based on "judgement rather than evidence", a cross party committee of MPs found.

"There is still a lack of consensus over how well the antiviral medicine Tamiflu, stockpiled for use in an influenza pandemic, actually works," Public Accounts Committee member Richard Bacon said today.

Refusal by the drug's manufacturer to release full details of their clinical trials, has forced the government to make a decision on stockpiling that is not based on the evidence.

"The lack of transparency of clinical trial information on this drug to the wider research community is preventing proper discussion of this issue among professionals," MPs found

The committee suggest this is part of a bigger problem whereby clinical trials of all drugs with negative results are twice as likely to be withheld from the public as those with positive results.

According to their report: "The Committee was surprised and concerned to discover that information is routinely withheld from doctors and researchers about the methods and results of clinical trials on treatments currently prescribed in the United Kingdom."

They recommend that the results of all clinical trials should in future be registered and made available for independent scrutiny.

£424 million has been spent on stockpiling Tamiflu since 2006. The government are currently scheduled to maintain stocks capable of treating 50% of the UK population.

However, MPs found that while there was still a broad consensus that the drug reduces flu symptoms, there is little consensus over its ability to reduce complications and fatalities.

The business case for stockpiling Tamiflu had assumed it would reduce complications and deaths by up to 50%.

The committee also found that the government was forced to throw away £74 million worth of Tamiflu after "poor record-keeping" meant it was unclear whether the stocks had been stored at the right temperature.

The committee's findings come as a separate report warns that the UK is dangerously unprepared for a flu pandemic.

The report by the health think tank Centre for Health and the Public Interest claims that, the government's reforms to the NHS have seriously hampered its ability to respond to a new crisis.

"There appear to be new difficulties from top to bottom, from central policy-making, through loss of expertise resulting from the substantial staffing and organisational changes caused by the re-organisation, down to the ability to deliver at a local level. There are too many new problems for comfort," they warn.

The department for health denied that they are unprepared.

"It is wrong to suggest that the new health system will not be able to cope with a flu pandemic," a spokesperson said.

"A great deal of work has been carried out by the Department of Health, Public Health England, the NHS and local authorities to make sure national and local plans are up to date and fit for purpose."