The response to the next influenza pandemic will likely include extensive use of antiviral drugs (mainly oseltamivir), combined with other transmission-reducing measures. Animal and in vitro studies suggest that some strains of influenza may become resistant to oseltamivir while maintaining infectiousness (fitness). Use of antiviral agents on the scale anticipated for the control of pandemic influenza will create an unprecedented selective pressure for the emergence and spread of these strains. Nonetheless, antiviral resistance has received little attention when evaluating these plans.
We designed and analyzed a deterministic compartmental model of the transmission of oseltamivir-sensitive and -resistant influenza infections during a pandemic. The model predicts that even if antiviral treatment or prophylaxis leads to the emergence of a transmissible resistant strain in as few as 1 in 50,000 treated persons and 1 in 500,000 prophylaxed persons, widespread use of antivirals may strongly promote the spread of resistant strains at the population level, leading to a prevalence of tens of percent by the end of a pandemic. On the other hand, even in circumstances in which a resistant strain spreads widely, the use of antivirals may significantly delay and/or reduce the total size of the pandemic. If resistant strains carry some fitness cost, then, despite widespread emergence of resistance, antivirals could slow pandemic spread by months or more, and buy time for vaccine development; this delay would be prolonged by nondrug control measures (e.g., social distancing) that reduce transmission, or use of a stockpiled suboptimal vaccine. Surprisingly, the model suggests that such nondrug control measures would increase the proportion of the epidemic caused by resistant strains.
The benefits of antiviral drug use to control an influenza pandemic may be reduced, although not completely offset, by drug resistance in the virus. Therefore, the risk of resistance should be considered in pandemic planning and monitored closely during a pandemic.