An anti-flu pill - the first oral version of a new treatment against the illness - has been shown to speed recovery by up to two days and lessen the severity of symptoms.

An anti-flu pill - the first oral version of a new treatment against the illness - has been shown to speed recovery by up to two days and lessen the severity of symptoms.

The drug, called Tamislu in the US, where it was licensed last year, is due for launch in the UK in the autumn, in time for the winter flu season. It is licensed in Switzerland, New Zealand and South America.

Experts are warning that next winter's flu could be worse than normal after scientists monitoring the progress of the illness in the southern hemisphere identified a new virus which could leave many in Britain without immunity. The Government announced this week it was extending free flu vaccinations next winter from the over-75s to the over-65s.

A study published in The Lancet showed the new drug, whose chemical name is oseltamivir, cut the duration of the illness by up to 40 per cent, from five days to three and reduced the severity of symptoms such as headache, fever and fatigue by 25 per cent.

Its manufacturers, Roche, have applied for a UK licence and it is being examined by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), the government watchdog on new drugs, which will decide whether, assuming it is granted a licence, it should be available on the NHS.

The new drug has a major advantage over its rival, Relenza, made by GlaxoWellcome, which was launched last year: it is a pill that can be swallowed. Relenza comes as a powder that has to be inhaled using a special device, which some patients have found difficult to master. Relenza was licensed in the UK last year but NICE, in its first interim report rushed out last autumn, instructed GPs not to prescribe it on the NHS. The Institute argued there was insufficient evidence of the drug's effectiveness among the elderly.

NICE is now re-examining Relenza alongside the new drug and will issue a full report, expected in the autumn. If it recommends their use on the NHS it will impose a heavy cost, which some estimates have put at over £100m. Both drugs are neuraminidase inhibitors and are major improvements on amantadine, the old anti-flu drug, also available as a pill, which is effective only against influenza A (not B) and can have serious side-effects.

The Lancet study was conducted in 60 centres in Europe, Canada and China. Of 726 patients who attended for treatment within 36 hours of developing symptoms, 475 were confirmed to have flu and nearly half of these had been able to start treatment within 24 hours.

Patients treated with placebo had flu lasting, on average, 117 hours (almost five days). Those treated with the largest dose of oseltamivir got better 35 hours sooner, but among those who started within 24 hours, the duration of the illness was shortened by 47 hours.

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