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Scientist who invented ´Tamiflu´ predicts dark times

By Thomas Hochwarter

The swine flu scare has thrown an Austrian scientist into the limelight this week as his creation - "Tamiflu" - has become the global medication of choice with which to fight the disease.

But regardless of his efforts, Norbert Bischofberger predicts dark times are ahead for the planet.

Bischofberger headed a research team to create "Tamiflu", the first orally active commercially developed anti-influenza medication, for US company Gilead Sciences in the 1990s.

The 55-year-old analytical chemist recalls: "We started working to create ‘Tamiflu’ in 1993. Three years later, the first clinical studies were conducted before the drug was released on the US market in 1999 by Swiss company Roche.

Switzerland was the first European country giving the green light to "Tamiflu" in 1999. Three years later, the European Union (EU) followed. Switzerland’s national airline Swiss Airways recently decided to hand out the drug on its long-distance flights.

"We decided to create a pill and not a medication to inhale because especially people who suffer from influenza struggle with breathing difficulties. And the agent would only reach the lung," he explains.

"Tamiflu" is expected to become the main medication in the case of a pandemic since "Relenza", the product of Roche’s competitor GlaxoSmithKline must be inhaled.

Roche estimates that around 50 million people have been treated with "Tamiflu" to this day. The company is currently considering an increase of production, stressing that the process takes around eight weeks.

"Tamiflu’s" agent Oseltamivir turned out to be an effective medication against the currently spreading H1N1 virus, commonly known as swine flu. Bischofberger says "Tamiflu" is an essential precautionary measure all governments should take.

Bischofberger already warned in an interview in 2006 of an impending influenza pandemic, arguing that the last outbreak was in 1968 when no medication was yet available.

The recommendation is to take "Tamiflu" immediately after an infection but at the latest within 48 hours.

"The Spanish Flu of 1918 killed people within twelve hours – but not because of its effects on the lung but on the brain and on other organs. We learned this from conducting biopsies on corpses of people who died back then," Bischofberger, who has worked in Foster City near San Francisco for 20 years, explains.

"Tamiflu" was also an effective medication against the H5N1 virus known as bird flu which came up in 2005. Many governments, including those of the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada, stockpiled "Tamiflu" in order to brace themselves for a possible pandemic.

Austria was back then also affected by some cases of the virus, and around ten per cent of the Austrian population got hold of "Tamiflu" as a precaution.

Today, Austria is well prepared for a swine flu pandemic since authorities secured around four million pills of "Tamiflu." The possession of this amount secures the effective treatment of up to 45 per cent of the country’s population.

Most of the "Tamiflu" in Austria is currently located in the country’s army bases where it will remain until further notice. Apart from the pills, the Austrian army possesses some eight million protective face masks to be used by the entire population in the event of a pandemic.

There are currently around 200 Austrians staying in Mexico. According to latest reports, none of these people have been infected with the swine flu virus.

Austrian Health Authorities are warning of travelling to the country since it is "hard to assess the overall situation", but also try to avoid the hysteria.

Christiane Körner, deputy chief of the Austrian pharmacy association said there has so far been "nobody being afraid to turn up" at a chemists, adding no stock-buying of "Tamiflu" had been registered.

Doubts over the medication’s reliability came up two years ago. "Tamiflu" inventor Bischofberger’s efforts were tarred when fatal neuropsychiatric incidents were linked to the drug.

The Japanese Health Ministry warned that "Tamiflu" should not be given to those aged between 10 and 19 after fifteen teenagers attempted suicide after taking the drug between 2004 and March 2007. Claims were however never scientifically confirmed and studies eventually dismissed the accusations.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said this week the currently spreading virus is a "threat for health on an international scale."

The body set up an emergency plan for the case of an epidemic in 2005. Three million "Tamiflu" treatments could be acted out immediately if the body decides to call up the strategy – which has not yet happened in the current case.

Regardless of how well the currently spreading virus can be tackled, its emergence is expected to have dramatic effects.

The World Bank said the current recession could worsen as costs to fight the outbreak soar up to 2.3 billion Euros, leading to a decrease of international economic performance of around five per cent.

Experts estimate that the H1N1 virus has the potential to spread globally and claim victims all over the world.

But "Tamiflu" creator Bischofberger stresses it cannot be estimated for certain how many potential swine flu victims are really suffering from the new virus and how many were infected with the "real" influenza, which claims thousands of people everywhere all over the world.

Most victims are people living in third world countries who have no access to basic hygiene.

Bischofberger sees a high chance of the situation getting worse and a potential for new pandemics. He says: "I think the threat by new bacterial or viral agents is higher than the potential of a nuclear war."

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