Here is a scenario. Let’s say sometime in the coming years there is a hypothetical pandemic of Spanish flu, the influenza strain that killed some 100 million people or 6% of the world population in 1918-20.
American residents rush to the US government emergency dispensaries, where Tamiflu is issued to the citizenry in an orderly fashion, saving millions of lives. The government has stockpiled $1.5 billion worth of the drug for just such an emergency. Problem solved, right?
Er, no. It turns out that Tamiflu is about as effective as a sugar pill in treating or preventing flu, which is to say that it is essentially a placebo! Actually, it is likely worse than a placebo because Tamiflu can cause side effects in some users.
So what on earth is going on here? How can such a massive fraud be perpetuated on the intelligent citizens of the “greatest nation on earth”?
To understand this amazing dynamic at work, you have to look at several factors at play that make politics and public policy a game of managing perceptions, reality be damned.
The Flu virus has no cure
First of all, let me tell you a dirty secret. There is no known cure for the flu virus. It has to simply run its course, and no medicine can accelerate this process. If the Spanish flu or another deadly version shows up one year, and chances are pretty good that it will happen in our lifetimes, it will run its course just like in 1920, and the toll will be in the tens of millions.
The sane response to fighting flu as a public policy initiative
You would think that any rational government, when faced with a statistical certainty of a massive flu pandemic in the next few decades, would do the following.
Declare a war on flu, set up a department to fight flu, allocate say 1% of the total annual spending on health to researching the virus and coming up with proper preventive measures, more money on vaccine development and efficacy, an interdisciplinary committee using engineers, biologists, statisticians to model how flu spreads, more money on drug development, etc.
We can spend a trillion dollars toppling a Saddam Hussein, but not $10 billion trying to prevent a pandemic that can potentially wipe out a significant chunk of the global population!
The reality of how ineffective public policy can be
This utter helplessness against a flu pandemic is simply not good enough for public health officials. You see, they have to be seen as doing something, anything. So someone decided to go and stockpile any drug that sounds like it can help.
How to generate $1.5 billion in sales to the US government.
First of all, take a useless placebo that shows antiviral properties in a lab setting.
Next, hide all studies on whether it actually works against flu in humans.
Next, brand this drug with “flu” at the end of its name
Next, spend $15 million a year on lobbying on capitol hill.
That’s it! You get a hundred-fold return on your lobbying dollars!
But now the truth is seeping out. Tamiflu is an emperor with no clothes, according to this article http://abcnews.go.com/Health/ColdandFlu/anti-flu-drug-tamiflu-effectiveness-question/story?id=15381750#.T455SLOIKf4
I am going to wait for the Department of Health to demand a refund from big pharma for their purchases of a useless drug. But I am not going to hold my breath while I wait.