Health Highlights: Oct. 16, 2005

Medicare's Internet Tool for Drug Plan Debuts Monday Bird Flu Confirmed in Romania Indian Drug Maker to Produce Generic Version of Tamiflu Grant May Speed Up Quest for Male Contraceptive

HealthDay News

HealthDay News

Updated on October 16, 2005

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

Medicare's Internet Tool for Drug Plan Debuts Monday

Medicare's Internet-based tool that will allow seniors to comparison-shop for prescription drug plans is expected to debut on Monday.

The online tool had been scheduled to start Thursday at, but was postponed because of the Jewish holiday, Garry Karr, a spokesman for the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told the Washington Post.

The online tool is part of the Medicare agency's $300 million, three-year effort to educate the 1 million people enrolled in the federal health insurance program for the elderly about the new subsidized prescription drug coverage they can sign up for beginning next month.

Medicare officials say dozens of options will be available through private insurers who have been approved to offer the plans. Monthly premiums are expected to range from under $20 to almost $40, with some plans providing broader coverage than others.

The online tool is supposed to help seniors compare specific plans after taking into account factors such as where they live, the types of drugs they routinely take and how much they are willing to pay in premiums and deductibles.

Also beginning Monday, Medicare representatives will be available to answer questions at 1-800-633-4227, Karr said.


Bird Flu Confirmed in Romania

The bird flu strain that has devastated flocks and killed dozens of people in Asia has been confirmed in tests on birds from Romania, the Romanian agriculture ministry announced Saturday.

The ministry said lab tests in Britain showed that the flu detected in wild birds found dead in the Danube delta is the H5N1 strain. That is the strain authorities around the world fear could mutate into a form that can be passed among people, leading to a global pandemic, the Associated Press reported.

The announcement comes a week after H5N1 was discovered on a farm in Turkey, prompting the European Union to ban poultry imports from both Turkey and Romania.

Meanwhile, the International Herald Tribune reported that EU health officials unveiled tough new measures to help eradicate the virus, including keeping poultry indoors to prevent contact with wild migratory birds that are bringing the disease westward from Asia.

But the organization's top veterinary officials sought to temper growing alarm and stressed that the bird flu outbreak did not currently pose a public health risk.

"Recent information from the outbreaks of this week in Romania and Turkey suggests that the disease remains confined to poultry and wild birds, and at this stage no human cases have been confirmed," the organization said in a statement. "Therefore, at present, avian influenza does not represent a risk to the general public."


Indian Drug Maker to Produce Generic Version of Tamiflu

Cipla, the third largest drug maker in India, says it plans to start making a generic version of the anti-influenza drug Tamiflu to be ready for a possible avian flu pandemic.

However, Cipla could face a court challenge from Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche, which holds the patent for Tamiflu, The New York Times reported.

Generic drug makers can't legally sell patented drugs in the West. However, all national patent laws allow nations to cancel drug patents during emergencies and either buy generic drugs or compel drug patent holders to license their drug formulas to other companies.

"Right or wrong, we're going to commercialize and make oseltamivir (the generic name for Tamiflu)," Dr. Yusuf K. Hamied, chairman of Cipla, told the Times.

He said the generic drug would be sold only in developing nations.

"God forbid the avian flu should strike India. There is no line of defense," Hamied said.

Roche spokesman Terry Hurley wouldn't say whether the company would take Cipla to court. But Hurley told the Times, "If we determine that there has been an infringement, we'd move to protect our rights and interests."

Due to fears of a possible flu pandemic, the United Nations and several countries have been pushing Roche to license generic versions of Tamiflu, which eases the worst symptoms of flu.

Roche just announced it's increasing Tamiflu production to create stockpiles of the drug, but it said governments may have long waits for their orders to be filled.


Grant May Speed Up Quest for Male Contraceptive

A U.S. National Institutes of Health grant to Norfolk State University may help hasten the work of a researcher who has spent nearly 20 years trying to develop a male contraceptive.

The money, part of a five-year, $3.6 million grant to Norfolk State, will enable Joseph C. Hall to use computer-assisted drug design in his research. This should speed up the process of producing compounds for testing, the Associated Press reported.

"Right now, at the rate I'm going, synthesizing one compound at a time, it would take me five to six years to test to get the right one. This will shorten the time to six months or a year," Hall told The Virginian-Pilot.

Hall's work is focused on thwarting sperm's ability to fertilize eggs. He's achieved a success rate of 92 percent but wants to develop a male contraceptive that's 100 percent effective. The final product is likely to be in the form of patch, the AP reported.

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