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By Lisa O'Sullivan on

Time To Collect Tamiflu?

Working at a Museum doesn’t just mean thinking about the past, often it involves a bit of dabbling in futurology as well. We are lucky enough to have a very rich medical collection at the Science Museum, centred on objects collected by Henry Wellcome. However, his collection ends in 1936, when he died. So, in order to keep up to date, we are always thinking about the kind of objects that we need to acquire for the collection.

With medical technology changing so rapidly, we could easily run out of space unless we collect carefully. One of our criteria is to collect things which represent a real shift in medical practice, or the way the public understand and use a particular medicine.

With ‘swine’ flu (H1N1) having been declared a pandemic, my colleagues and I have been discussing whether or not it is time to collect tamiflu. I’m not so sure it is… Why not? While the word ‘pandemic’ sounds very extreme, it actually means that an infectious disease that can be found globally. The ‘ Spanish’ flu pandemic of 1918-1919 killed over 20 million people, and was thought to have infected half the world’s population. But not all pandemics have such high infection or mortality rates. And the use of an anti-viral treatment such as tamiflu isn’t a new idea.

Retrovir (zidovudine, AZT) - the first antiviral approved for treating HIV
Retrovir (zidovudine, AZT) – the first antiviral approved for treating HIV

We do have antivirals in the collection already, for instance AZT, the first successful anti-viral able to treat HIV/AIDS. This was such a major shift in the treatment of HIV/AIDs, we felt we should acquire some. But while it went on the market in 1987, we didn’t acquire any until 1994 – perhaps for ethical reasons, as it is difficult to justify collecting a treatment which is in high demand and short supply.

As for the tamiflu – one of my colleagues thinks the current pandemic, and the media and public responses to it, justify us looking at acquiring some. Her suggestion? She has been offered a half finished packet, which someone she knows stopped taking due to the side-effects. Not only does this remove any ethical issues (the medicine can’t be re-prescribed to someone else), there’s also another interesting story to be told, about patient compliance.

What are your thoughts? Should we take on tamiflu?

3 comments on “Time To Collect Tamiflu?

  1. We have a few objects in our collection relating to pandemics in Australia’s history.

    A few years ago we acquired some Relenza. Relenza was the result of Australian research into the flu virus in the late 80s and was the first neuraminidase inhibitor commercially developed. Tamiflu was developed in the USA (?) in an easy to use soluble pill form, and became more popular than the inhalable relenza.

    Bird flu, swine flu, run of the mill flu, it’s all about collecting the story of the science of how we have combated these viruses.

    I think that these types of neuraminidase inhibitors are an important part of the story of flu pandemics and should be preserved.


    Erika Dicker
    Assistant Curator
    Powerhouse Museum

  2. I think the compromise of accepting the half used pack is a good one. Otherwise perhaps wait to acquire a complete pack until after the demand for it in the population has fallen.

  3. Thanks for your comments.

    With the beginning of more wintry weather in the UK, we are being warned to start thinking about the possible resurgence in swine flu.

    As it happens, we have had *another* offer of a half finished pack. So there is definitely something going on there with patient compliance – it will be interesting to see if this continues if/when cases start going up again.

    I’ve had another chat with some of my colleagues, and it definitely looks like we’ll be presenting some half finished packets to acquisition board soon…

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