This winter, Triangle tots and teens could benefit from a new medication for fighting deadly cases of the flu.
The medication, called Rapivab, is no ordinary drug. It was developed for the U.S. government with $235 million in federal funding, and is one of the critical drugs maintained in the Strategic National Stockpile to protect the public during pandemics and bio-terror attacks.
The medication was approved this month for patients 2 to 18 years old by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; it was previously approved for adults in December 2014 and has been used at least 29 times in the Triangle since then.
Rapivab’s promise is that it can potentially prevent a flu-related death. Rapivab prevents the flu virus from spreading by blocking an enzyme in the virus that allows it to spread to other cells.
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It’s intended for desperately ill patients, and it’s expensive, costing about $1,000 per dose.
Developed by Durham’s BioCryst Pharmaceuticals, Rapivab is the nation’s only anti-flu treatment taken intravenously and is typically administered in hospitals in the most extreme cases. It works similarly to Tamiflu, a pill, and Relenza, which is inhaled, and is given to children and adults who are too ill to swallow or to inhale, either because they are vomiting or on a respirator.
“If you can’t tolerate or absorb the other two antivirals, this is the one for you because it’s injected directly into your vein and you have immediate absorption,” said Tom Staab, the chief financial officer at BioCryst.
Rapivab is most effective when injected within two days of developing flu symptoms. Potential side effects include diarrhea as well as blistering and peeling of the skin.
The medication is not yet approved for children under 2, an age that’s especially susceptible to developing flu-related complications that could lead to death. BioCryst is testing the drug on infants, Staab said. Also at high risk of developing flu-related complications are people 65 and older.
Most people infected with influenza descend into a few miserable days of fever, headaches, fatigue and muscle aches, but the virus can be fatal. North Carolina recorded 219 flu-related deaths in the 2016-17 flu season, including seven pediatric deaths. Wake County logged 22 flu-related deaths last flu season, all of them adults.
Nationwide, Rapivab has been administered to about 4,000 adults in the nearly three years since it has been approved, said David Minella, spokesman for Sequirus, the company that owns the licensing rights to sell Rapivab, which also goes by the medical term peramivir.
All major Triangle hospitals either have the medicine in stock or can have it delivered quickly. For example, WakeMed Health & Hospitals would have it delivered from a distributor in Greensboro, said spokeswoman Kristin Kelly.
“Peramivir is on WakeMed’s formulary for our inpatient units and is approved for use in adult and pediatric patients,” Kelly said by email. “It is not carried by our urgent care practices.”
Rapivab is the 31-year-old BioCryst’s first drug approved for public use. The 70-employee company is also developing a potent antiviral to treat dangerous Marburg and Ebola viruses and could potentially be used against the Zika virus.