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Swine flu crisis paid dividends for ‘Big Pharma’ companies

By Lindsay Fergus

Nine months after the first case of swine flu was diagnosed in Northern Ireland, health chiefs in the province have effectively heralded the end of the pandemic.

However, there is widespread belief among medical experts that the main winners from the crisis were the pharmaceutical companies who manufacture the antiviral drugs used to combat the virus.

According to recent financial statements, those companies — so-called ‘Big Pharma’ — are bucking the economic downturn, reporting soaring profits thanks to the global sale of swine flu drugs.

It was claimed by health officials here that by October last year — just two months after swine flu claimed its first victim in Northern Ireland — there were 25,000 suspected cases of the virus in the province.

That same month, the first 11,000 doses of the vaccine arrived in Northern Ireland with a vaccination program for frontline health and social care workers getting under way on October 21.

As in the rest of the UK, the Northern Ireland Executive — desperate to be seen to be doing something — forked out millions of pounds for antiviral drugs, which the pharmaceutical companies would only sell in bulk.

Health Committee chairman Jim Wells admitted the Department of Health was forced into buying large quantities of antivirals.

He said: “My understanding at the time of ordering this vaccine was that there was a huge demand worldwide and we hadn’t had the option to order bits and pieces — we either had to commit ourselves with significant orders, or we went to the end of the queue.

“So the department took the decision and purchased en bloc a million-plus doses — the only option available at the time.”

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