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Tamiflu's frontline status a mixed blessing for Roche

Published on 03/11/05 at 11:09am

Sales of Roche's Tamiflu have rocketed as governments around the world prepare for a potential pandemic, but its status as the frontline treatment has put its patent in the spotlight.

Tamiflu and GSK's rival product Relenza are being stockpiled around the world because they represent the best short-term treatments available to combat the threat of a deadly new strain of flu.

Roche has seen sales of its antiviral leap by 263% to CHF859 million in the first nine months of this year, with massive sales increases around the world.

But the company has come under great pressure to waive its patent on the drug in response to the emergency situation and allow generic copies to be manufactured.

Roche has resisted the calls to suspend the patent, arguing that the 10-step process involved in manufacturing Tamiflu is dangerous and complicated and would take another company two to three years to produce.

The Swiss company is increasing production capacity of Tamiflu 8-10 fold by mid-2006 and is working with companies and governments to meet the growing demand.

"We have been contacted by over 100 companies. We are now investigating further the possibility of working with those generic companies we think have the potential to produce Tamiflu," a Roche spokesperson said.

The company has also pledged to provide the drug at a single discounted global pandemic price for all industrialised nations, and has won the backing of the Bush administration in the US.

Before President Bush launched the US plan, fears had been raised about the impact of a possible pandemic, with Roche having to suspend shipments of Tamiflu to the US and Canada to prevent panic buying by the public.

One US senator had called for the temporary suspension of the Tamiflu patent.

"If we can increase the number of manufacturers producing Tamiflu, we can protect many more Americans should a pandemic hit," said US senator Charles E Schumer, a champion of increased access to cheaper drugs.

The Senator proposed compensating Roche for surrendering its patent and he has called on the company to issue compulsory licences within a month.

India and Vietnam have threatened to break the patent to ensure enough supplies in the event of an epidemic while Taiwan has taken matters into its own hands and started work on its own version of Tamiflu, saying that its priority was to protect the public.

Some generic companies have also disagreed with Roche's timescales, saying it would take just a matter of months to produce the drug on a wider basis.

Indian generics company Cipla says it plans to bring out a version of the drug early next year.

In the UK, Roche said it was well on the way to fulfilling its priority of supplying the Department of Health with 14.6 million dosages by September 2006.

"We have also had a lot of interest from private companies in the UK about supplying them with Tamiflu but this is not a priority for us," added the spokesperson.

The spokesperson said along with supplying the DH, Roche's other priority in the UK was meeting the influenza demand for Tamiflu this winter.

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Thursday , October 20, 2005



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