A flu-fighting drug that was already a hot commodity this winter could become even more scarce since the World Health Organization suggested Friday that countries start stockpiling it against a possible avian flu pandemic.
Many people turned to antiviral drugs when they were unable to get flu shots during the early and widespread outbreak of flu that swept the United States and most of the Northern Hemisphere starting in October.
The most popular of these drugs has been oseltamivir, sold as Tamiflu, which works by inhibiting a protein found in common flu strains. With the protein blocked, the virus cannot infect new cells.
WHO officials say tests indicate the bird flu that is sweeping Asia is resistant to older types of antiviral drugs, but is susceptible to the inhibitor drug.
The virus is highly contagious among poultry, and millions of birds have died from the disease or have been destroyed in a bid to contain it. Ten people _ eight in Vietnam and two in Thailand _ have also died from the bird flu, but all of them caught the virus from diseased birds.
The fear among health experts is that if the bird flu infects someone suffering from a human form of the flu, a deadly and easily spread hybrid virus might evolve and quickly be transmitted around the globe.
Klaus Stohr, WHO's chief flu expert, said Friday that while efforts are under way to develop a vaccine against the virus, such protection is still months away and might not be widely available for some time.
So it would be prudent, he said, for countries to stockpile effective antiviral drugs should the disease start spreading among people.