There's some bad news for those hoping that the anti-viral drug Tamiflu will save them should they get sick this winter. It seems that a significant percentage of seasonal flu cases have become Tamiflu-resistant, according to a study completed by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). The ECDC tested 148 samples of the most common seasonal flu, Influenza A H1N1, and found that 13 percent of the samples did not respond to the anti-viral agent. These findings raised concerns, since Tamiflu currently is the frontrunner antiviral drug worldwide, and many nations have been stockpiling it in case of a bird-flu pandemic. Tamiflu is not a vaccine and doesn't prevent the flu, but rather, works to lessen symptoms and to shorten the duration of the illness.
Tamiflu (oseltamivir phosphate) is an antiviral drug marketed by the Swiss pharmaceutical company, Roche. It belongs to a group of drugs called neuraminidase inhibitors. It works by targeting a protein called neuraminidase that exists on the surface of flu virus cells. This protein helps the flu virus break through cell walls so it can move into new cells and replicate itself. Tamiflu inhibits the neuraminidase protein so that the virus cannot penetrate and infect new cells. Eventually, the virus dies. The active ingredient in Tamiflu, oseltamivir, is a one-dimensional, synthesized extract of a substance called shikimic acid, found as part of naturally occurring complexes in plants like Chinese star anise, ginkgo, spruce, pine and fir trees. Isolating it allows for higher concentrations and makes it patentable -- but it also removes it from the presence of other bioactives that would be found in its natural environment. As we will see in a bit, this matters.
In response to the ECDC findings, the UN-based World Health Organization (WHO) launched its own investigation of Tamiflu's effectiveness, contacting health authorities in nations around the globe to track risk. It seems that resistance varies remarkably according to where in the world the flu samples come from. In Canada, authorities report that about 10 percent of flu samples have become resistant to Tamiflu, in Japan only three-percent show resistance, and in the United States, resistance currently runs at about seven percent. But in Norway, an overwhelming 75 percent of the flu samples were Tamiflu-resistant. The researchers found these results confounding, since the "accepted theory" is that resistance develops when a drug is over-prescribed, and physicians in Norway rarely dispense Tamiflu.
So why are Norwegian viruses so recalcitrant? I hate to say, "I told you so," but from my perspective, increasing resistance to Tamiflu is as predictable as rush-hour traffic in Los Angeles. I discussed the limitations of antivirals and antibiotics in my 12/5/05 newsletter (appropriately titled, Why Antibiotics and Antivirals Fail), in which I explained that pharmaceuticals are doomed to ultimately stop working since they have only a one-dimensional approach to wiping out pathogens. Remember, viruses and bacteria are very simple structures that can mutate easily. Antiobiotics and antivirals work by attacking a single structure in the pathogen, leaving the rest of the pathogen intact. This process selectively breeds super strains of a given bug, since only those bugs with a natural resistance to the drug survive -- thus ultimately rendering the drug useless.
For instance, Penicillin destroys bacteria by clinging to and then penetrating their cellular walls. Those few bacteria with naturally thick walls survive and reproduce -- mutating to develop even thicker, Penicillin-resistant walls; and when the mutation succeeds, the drug-resistant bacteria multiply. The most disturbing fact is that bacteria can swap genes with other types of bacteria (a process known as "reassortment"), meaning that drug-resistant strains of bacteria that cause a disease such as strep throat can then pass the drug-resistant genes on to bacteria that cause different diseases entirely. And viruses experience reassortment in exactly the same way -- thus facilitating the transfer of resistance from one type of virus to another.
Because viruses have an even more primitive composition than bacteria--consisting of one type of biochemical (a nucleic acid, such as DNA or RNA) wrapped in another (protein)--they mutate extremely easily and quickly and can develop drug-resistant strains in just weeks or months. And so, it's no surprise that in Norway, Tamiflu-resistant flu strains have proliferated so rapidly. There's nothing particularly special about Norway; it just happens to be where the inevitable happened first.
What does this mean for you--other than that you should postpone that trip to Oslo until after flu season? It means that you should rely on natural antipathogens for help, as they do a much better job of fighting viruses than pharmaceuticals do. Naturally occurring organic compounds have a complex chemical composition, unlike one-dimensional pharmaceuticals that target a single weakness in a pathogen, which provides an easy bypass for mutation. Because of their complex structure, natural agents can attack pathogens on multiple fronts at once. For instance, garlic, a natural antiviral, has 100 biologically active compounds that can pair up in thousands and thousands of different combinations, which by their very complexity provide an impenetrable barrier to the genetic mutation of simple organisms.
Garlic is just one of a group of natural pathogenic agents highly effective against viruses and bacterial infections. Other effective viral agents include:
- Olive-leaf extract
- Oil of wild mountain oregano
- Liquid ionic zinc
- Grapefruit seed extract
- Apple cider vinegar
- Black elderberry
Each of these compounds, on its own, works well to combat pathogens, and when used in combination, they can create a solid defense against disease. The bottom line is that drug-resistance to pharmaceutical drugs can, and does, develop easily; pathogens cannot possibly develop resistance to the billions of combinations that the thousands of biologically active compounds in natural antivirals can produce when used in combination. So if you want to have something on hand to help you out just in case you do get a seasonal virus, don't pin your hopes on Tamiflu. Rather, keep a stash of a high-quality, natural, antipathogenic compounds in the cupboard.