Experimental Drug Promises to Beat the Flu

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With much of the nation coming out of a heat wave, it may seem a bit early in the year to start thinking about the flu. But not to scientists studying an experimental inhaled medication, zanamivir, that may prevent people from getting the flu. The researchers’ results, published in Wednesday’s issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, reveal that when used during two flu outbreaks in the Midwest, zanamivir proved 67 percent effective in preventing subjects from getting the flu, and 84 percent effective in preventing them from getting serious flu with fever. The drug works by disabling the flu virus' ability to spread. "This is encouraging news," says TIME magazine health columnist Christine Gorman, "because the flu doesn’t get enough respect." While the malady is mostly just an annoyance, it can be deadly to the elderly and those with weakened immune systems.

The vaccines that are already around to fight the flu are often not enough. "The influenza strain that will hit can often change quickly," says Gorman. "But vaccines need to be produced far ahead of time." Having an antiviral medication like zanamivir that could be used to supplement vaccines -- especially those shots that turn out to be off the mark -- could be immensely valuable to people particularly vulnerable to flu complications. Earlier anti-flu drugs have raised concerns about side effects, which in zanamivir’s case appear to be minimal. The study will help make the drug’s case before the FDA, which in the past has expressed skepticism about the drug’s effectiveness and has yet to grant approval.