Michael Pascoe writes:

The big winner from the fear of a bird flu
mutation has been Roche, manufacturer of Tamiflu, as the 5 or 10% of
the world that can afford it has raced to stockpile something that might help
if the virus decides to mutate in just the right sort of way.

There has been something a little macabre
about the fuss over whom Big Brother would allocate Tamiflu to, how much should
be stored, how much Roche should expect to be paid.

Gnawing away at the back of my mind
throughout has been the possibility that the next big bad bug that comes along
might not follow the Roche script. It has always seemed just a little too easy
to assume we will be able to predict just which bug will mutate in which way to
become the next mass killer.

The Roche share price had a little wobble over
just that concern this week after reports in the right sort of scientific
journals that people still die from bird flu after getting a dose of Tamiflu.
(And remember that this isn’t the pandemic bird flu of the future, this is the
one the boffins have had time to study and play games with.) The Oz today
carries an FT report on the problem while WHO has been saying maybe it’s not a problem
but Roche shares still fell in Europe overnight.

If you are the sort of person who likes to
have something to worry about over the holidays, the last of those stores is
the one to read, including, in part:

A report published in the New England Journal of Medicine
said the virus could develop more quickly than expected, rendering Tamiflu and
other neuraminidase inhibitors less effective.

Roche stressed that the current strain of H5N1 was not a pandemic
strain and that it would have to mutate – and potentially become less virulent
– in order to become a human pandemic. The company said it was looking for
ways to use the drug in the event of an outbreak, Bank Leu analysts said in a
note, adding that one intriguing possibility was the potential of increasing
the dosage and treatment length.

“This could quickly shrink the calculated coverage of the
current stockpile and hence increase demand for pandemic stockpiling
further,” Bank Leu wrote in a note.

Does it sound to you like Bank Leu is
talking up the Roche share price there?

The professional sceptic might well think
that the mutant strain could become more virulent instead of less, if that’s
what takes the bug’s fancy. Or this bug could be like the last big scare, the
Millennium Bug, which turned out to be a fizzer.

Meanwhile our own little Biota Holdings is
doing nicely with its Relenza offering competing with Tamiflu. At midday,
Biota was up 6 cents to $1.52.

For mine, there is a certainty that some
virus will come along and wipe out a large proportion of the population at some
stage. There is no certainty about when or which virus or how tough that virus
might be. Bird flu is just one bug with a potential for mutation – there are
millions of them. It seems just a bit too convenient that the eventual killer
bug should send so much warning.

Consider all the money and effort that’s
been poured into fighting HIV, for example, and there’s still no vaccine.

But hey, it’s Christmas. Don’t worry
about. Just enjoy and be kind to people while you have the opportunity.