Tamiflu gold mine puts Roche in crossfire

BASEL, Switzerland — Swiss drug maker Roche Holding Ltd. has found itself sitting on a gold mine with its Tamiflu antiviral drug in hot demand as the best defense against an influenza pandemic.

But the attention has put pressure on the company to step up production, cut prices and allow other companies to make copies of Tamiflu. Governments and individuals, fearing that the current bird flu virus could mutate into a strain that easily transmits among humans, have been snapping up supplies.

Roche tried to defuse the controversy by inviting reporters to its headquarters this week for a tour and demonstration of the drug’s manufacture — which the company maintains is extremely complicated. The executives sought to reassure governments concerned about bird flu, saying the company was producing enough Tamiflu to treat 55 million people this year.

David Reddy, the company’s influenza pandemic task force leader, said production will be nearly tripled next year to 150 million treatments, and that in 2007, Roche will be in a position to make 300 million treatments.

In the same breath, executives played down the current threat of a pandemic and Tamiflu’s role in the case it happened.

“At the moment it’s an animal welfare and economic problem,” said William M. Burns, chief executive of the pharmaceutical division. He was referring to the slaughter of poultry to stop the spread of the flu.

“Pandemic preparedness is Tamiflu and more” he said. “The preparedness of society will need to be much greater. How are we going to keep the wheels of society turning? There won’t be enough intensive care units or respiratory equipment.”

But John Oxford, a professor of virology at Queen Mary’s University of London, who was a paid speaker at the Roche briefing, insisted much of the burden rested with Tamiflu.

“We need plans and ammunition and Tamiflu is at least half of our ammunition,” Oxford said. “Without Tamiflu, we would be going into this naked.”

He also warned that bird flu was “like the Scarlet Pimpernel: You never know where it’s going to appear. And it’s got a greater spectrum of variety than any other flu virus we’ve ever seen before.”

Until last month, Roche had insisted it would not allow anyone else to make Tamiflu as sales of the once-obscure drug’s sales have skyrocketed from $76 million in 2001 to an expected $1.1 billion to $1.2 billion this year.

Roche been accused of benefiting from a global health crisis, and has come under international pressure to ease its control on manufacture.

Burns argued that the increased pressure was partly due to “people wanting it yesterday because they only thought of it yesterday.”

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