The Wellcome Foundation, which makes the anti-viral drug acyclovir (Zovirax), promoted it in such a way as to persuade people to ask their GPs to prescribe it, according to the Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority. The company is under pressure to increase sales of acyclovir after the Independent on Sunday revealed that some GPs, worried about their drugs budgets, were reluctant to prescribe it because of cost.
Wellcome suffered a further setback earlier this month when a British and French trial found that AZT, the first drug to be licensed for Aids, did not delay the onset of illness in HIV-positive patients as previously believed. The widow of an Aids sufferer is suing Wellcome and the South Birmingham Health Authority on the grounds that AZT hastened her husband's death. Susan Threakhall, 47, whose husband Bob was a haemophiliac, is believed to be the first person to sue over AZT.
In the first breach of the code of practice, a GP complained to the authority about a leaflet on cold sores, published with support from the company and delivered to homes in his area. The leaflet did not name a product but said 'extensive medical research has made effective treatments available . . . which can shorten the length of an attack or even prevent an attack'. The authority ruled that claims for preventing a cold-sore attack applied to acyclovir, and the leaflet was designed to get people to ask their doctors to prescribe it.
Wellcome denied any breach of the code, saying the leaflet was part of a campaign to increase awareness of the condition. It said the second incident, in which promotional material for acyclovir was sent to people who responded to a magazine article, was due to errors.