The National Institute of Clinical Excellence is fast-tracking an investigation into Relenza, an inhaler that reduces the symptoms of flu to those of a common cold, so that it could be available this winter.
Flu claims more than 3,000 lives a year in Britain, mainly among the elderly, and nearly 150 million working days are lost because of it.
The drug, manufactured by Glaxo-Wellcome, is available in the United States and has to be taken within the first couple of days for it to be effective. Used twice a day over five days, it reduces symptoms such as headaches, fevers and congestion.
Professor Michael Rawlins, chairman of the institute, said the drug had been fast-tracked so that recommendations could be given to doctors before the winter flu season started.
"The manufacturers are being very co-operative and giving us all the information we need. We need to take a robust and careful look at everything," he said. "We might say that its benefits are greatest in certain categories, for instance the elderly or those with chronic lung conditions, but we will look at all the available evidence carefully before coming to a decision."
The British Medical Association welcomed the decision to investigate the drug immediately. "Family doctors have been extremely concerned about what impact the drug will have on GP services and drugs budgets," said a spokesman.
Doctors are worried that they will be inundated with patients asking for the drug even before they have developed the symptoms.
The institute has been set up to try to end "postcode lotteries" within the NHS, where one person can receive a drug while a person in a different area is denied the drug for the same treatment.
The group will look at between 30 and 50 new treatments each year, referred to it by the Department of Health, and will take up to eight months to assess and advise on each new drug.
Drugs used to treat the 36,000 women who develop breast and ovarian cancer each year in Britain, including Taxol, will also be among the first to be investigated.
A survey last year found that four-fifths of health authorities would not pay for Taxol, which costs pounds 8,000 for a six-week cycle.
Patients' associations will be consulted and drugs companies will have the right to appeal against the institute's recommendations.
The new body will advise on the cost-effectiveness and clinical benefit of medicines and therapies and lay down "best practice" guidelines.
Professor Rawlins said the institute expected to have guidelines on Beta Interferon, a drug used to treat sufferers of multiple sclerosis, by the new year.
Frank Dobson, the Health Secretary, said: "For the first time in its history, the NHS now has a body dedicated to help to keep that promise to ensure that every NHS patient in the country gets fast and fair access to high quality treatment."
Experts will also investigate hip replacements and treatments for schizophrenia. More than 40,000 patients have a hip operation each year, and about 60 different types of hip replacements are used in Britain. They range in price from pounds 200 to pounds 2,000 and there is no evidence that the more expensive brands are superior, said Professor Rawlins.Reuse content