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David Bradley ISSUE #73
April 2008
Fake Bird Flu

International health organizations are lying in wait for the emergence of a form of avian influenza that could spread between people and lead to a global epidemic, killing millions. When that day arrives, the last thing the healthcare service needs to worry about is doling out fake medication. Thankfully, chemists at Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a rapid technique for detecting fake Tamiflu, the mainstay medication for preventing and treating bird flu.

Tamiflu structure (Structure by David Bradley)At the American Chemical Society spring meeting, Facundo Fernandez presented results of Desorption Electrospray Ionization Mass Spectrometry (DESI-MS) studies that can determine authenticity of large batches of Tamiflu samples up to 20 times faster than conventional analytical methods.

"It's a one-step process that doesn't require any extensive sample preparation," explains Fernandez, "and takes less than a minute." The common standard for determining pharmaceutical quality, high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), is much slower.

"The method could allow large numbers of drug samples to be checked for authenticity during a major outbreak of an emergent influenza virus," Fernandez adds. In a crisis, waiting an hour per sample would waste time needed in medicating as many patients as possible with effective drugs to slow the spread of the virus.

DESI-MS speeds up search for fakes (Credit: Leonard Nyadong)In 2007, there were just 59 human deaths from bird flu; while tragic, most of those were in the developing world where hygiene and exposure to infected birds is much more likely than in the West. To put this into perspective, there were several thousand deaths across the globe from human influenza. Nevertheless, should a strain of avian influenza mutate into a form that can be passed from human to human, then medical services will need validated stockpiles of Tamiflu to help ward off a global epidemic.

At US$6.50 per tablet, the high cost of Tamiflu and increasing demand have made it a preferred target for drug counterfeiters. Fake Tamiflu has been found in Chicago, San Francisco, and other areas.