On Wednesday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved an exciting new drug that's supposed to treat the flu, called Xofluza. This is a big deal, not just because we're entering into flu season, but also because this is the first flu drug the FDA has approved in 20 years. "With thousands of people getting the flu every year, and many people becoming seriously ill, having safe and effective treatment alternatives is critical. This novel drug provides an important, additional treatment option," Scott Gottlieb, MD, FDA commissioner said in a press release.
Heretofore, the only drug that was available for treating the flu was Tamiflu, a twice-daily pill that reduces flu symptoms in five days. Based on clinical trials, Xofluza is able to treat flu symptoms just as well as Tamiflu in one oral dose. Both are antiviral drugs, but they work in slightly different ways.
We know that the flu is a viral infection caused by the influenza virus. According to Genentech, the pharmaceutical company that makes Xofluza, this new drug works by blocking an enzyme within the influenza virus, called the endonuclease enzyme. When Xofluza is taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms, it can stop the flu virus from replicating itself and spreading to infect other cells. Tamiflu, on the other hand, goes after a different enzyme called neuraminidase.
In clinical trials, Xofluza reduced the duration of flu symptoms pretty significantly. On Xofluza, flu symptoms lasted an average of 54 hours compared to 80 hours on a placebo. Anyone who has dealt with the brutal symptoms of the flu — including fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, muscle aches, and fatigue — can understand why this drug is somewhat of a breakthrough. If you're able to stop symptoms, and get back to your life quicker, then that's amazing. But it's important to remember that this drug isn't a substitute for getting a flu shot. "Yearly vaccination is the primary means of preventing and controlling flu outbreaks," Dr. Gottlieb said, and the Centers for Disease Control suggest that people get their shots by the end of the month.
Of course, the flu shot isn't perfect, because it's difficult to predict what flu strains will be popular each year. If you do find yourself with flu-like symptoms, you may want to ask your doctor or healthcare provider about Xofluza. It costs around $30 for patients with health insurance, and may cost $90 for those without it. But it's still pretty new, so some doctors might not be down to prescribe it to their patients until more people have taken it. Pregnant or breastfeeding people, for example, shouldn't take it because it's not clear if Xofluza would harm an unborn baby or transfer into breast milk. And like most drugs, Xofluza comes with side effects, including diarrhea, bronchitis, nausea, cold symptoms, and headache.
Given how widespread and serious the flu can be, it's reassuring to know that there are promising treatment options available. But please, if nothing else, get your flu shot, friends.