FLU: Drug Marketing May Be Increasing Media Coverage
While this year's flu epidemic continues to rage across North America and Europe, the media coverage devoted to it may be due to the marketing efforts of Roche Holding Ltd. and Glaxo Wellcome PLC, makers of Tamiflu and Relenza, the Wall Street Journal reports. While the CDC reports that the flu season is in full swing and is expected to peak earlier than usual, the incidence of the illness does not appear to be higher than in recent years. However, CDC spokesperson Tom Skinner said the CDC is "getting many more media calls about the flu than usual. It's about the highest I've ever seen." This may be due, in part, to the aggressive $50 million advertising campaigns of both companies.
Fake Grandmas and Chicken Soup
Roche has not only inundated local reporters in different cities with press releases about the flu epidemic, but also hired a dozen "grandmotherly actresses" last weekend to hand out chicken soup in Manhattan and promote Tamiflu. The drugs reduce the severity of the symptoms, but only if taken within a day or two of the onset of the flu. They may also reduce the length of a typical week-long flu bout by a day. Both companies have been urging patients to see a physician at the first sign of illness. Their campaign may be paying off. Industry reports show that in the first week of December, doctors wrote 16,000 prescriptions for Tamiflu and Relenza. That number increased exponentially to 160,000 by the last week in December. Shares of Gilead Sciences Inc., which licensed Tamiflu to Roche, rose yesterday as Glaxo and Roche are reporting an enormous customer demand.
Some doctors aren't convinced, however. While they concede that the drugs may ease suffering, there is concern that patients who don't have the flu, but have another respiratory virus, will be disappointed. Public Citizen, the consumer-advocacy group, has been arguing for several weeks that the cost of the drugs -- $45 to $50 for a full course -- is far greater than any benefit. One doctor told his patients that the most effective treatment "is to get a shot in the fall. That way they won't have to worry about any of this" (Waldholz, 1/11).