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Liquid flu med labeled scarce around Western Pennsylvania

| Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, 11:55 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Christopher Antypas, co-owner and pharmacist at Asti's South Hills Pharmacy in Castle Shannon, takes calls on Tuesday, January 7, 2014. The pharmacy is one of few in the area to maintain a stock of Tamiflu, a medicine for flu treatment.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Dan Asti, co-owner and pharmacist at Asti's South Hills Pharmacy in Castle Shannon, takes calls on Tuesday, January 7, 2014. The pharmacy is one of few in the area to maintain a stock of Tamiflu, a medicine for flu treatment.

As flu season cranks up, the maker of Tamiflu and some pharmacies warn that customers may have trouble finding the popular antiviral drug to treat the illness.

“We have not been able to get it in,” Mike Matuszewski, a pharmacist at CVS in Mt. Lebanon, said Tuesday. The store ordered 10 packs in November. “At the time, I thought that was overdoing it a bit. But we blew through that.”

Nearby at Asti's South Hills Pharmacy, owner and pharmacist Dan Asti ordered more than 200 boxes. About half remain, he said.

Asti said four medicine wholesalers in the area ran out of Tamiflu or have had low supplies for weeks. That is especially true for the liquid, pediatric version, he said.

Flu activity continues to increase around the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Twenty-five states, including Pennsylvania, report widespread influenza cases.

On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration added Tamiflu Oral Suspension, the version used for children, to its drug shortage list. The federal agency cited increased demand and temporary manufacturing delays by drug maker Genentech.

It didn't say which areas of the country are experiencing shortages, though news reports from Atlanta and Little Rock, Ark., have noted diminished supplies.

“There has been strong and early demand for Tamiflu Oral Suspension and we are experiencing a temporary delay in packaging,” said Genentech spokeswoman Tara Iannuccillo. “A brief shortage is expected through mid-January. We may be unable to fill complete orders from distributors for a limited time.”

No nationwide shortages are reported for Tamiflu capsules, but some Western Pennsylvania pharmacies have had trouble getting those supplies.

Tamiflu costs pharmacies about $110 per 10-count box. Retail prices run about $120 for people paying cash; those with insurance typically pay about $75, several pharmacies reported.

The CDC says antiviral medications such as Tamiflu can shorten symptoms of the flu and prevent serious complications. Its manufacturer touts it as a way to shorten hospitalizations and says it is more effective when taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms.

Yet doctors debate the benefits of Tamiflu, said Dr. Don Yealy, chief of emergency medicine at UPMC.

“You can find experienced physicians saying the amount of people it will help is fairly small,” Yealy said. “Its effect is modest. Since most people don't need it, I don't know that (a shortage) is something to be terribly concerned about.”

Ferri Pharmacy in Murrysville has about six boxes on its shelves.

“We haven't had to turn anybody down yet,” said owner Bill Ferri.

He is a member of the board of Value Drug Company, an Altoona-based cooperative that serves his pharmacy and more than 300 others as an independent wholesale drug distributor. Value Drug had 100 boxes of Tamiflu on Monday. By Tuesday, it had none, Ferri said.

Matuszewski of CVS said he has been unable to get more from his warehouse and distributors. A CVS spokeswoman could not be reached for comment.

Giant Eagle, which operates 218 retail pharmacies, noticed increased demand for Tamiflu but reported no significant shortages, a spokesman said.

Medical editor Luis Fábregas contributed to this report. Jason Cato is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or

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