Roche said on Monday that it would be able to raise production of its anti-viral flu drug to guard against a future bird flu pandemic and was in partnering talks with a number of other companies and governments to further increase world-wide supply.
The Swiss pharmaceuticals group said that it would be able to produce 300m treatments of Tamiflu annually by 2007 - a tenfold increase over the capacity in 2004.
It was also in initial talks with eight companies, from an initial 150 requests, including large generic manufacturers and major pharmaceutical companies as well as governments including Taiwan and Vietnam. Roche said it would judge partners on their quality, technical ability, capacity, and speed of bringing capacity on stream.
Tamiflu, which is used to treat normal outbreaks of influenza, has been shown in animal models to be effective against the lethal avian H5N1 strain of bird flu that has spread from Asia to Europe.
The fear is that the virus that has caused the death of millions of birds could mutate so that it can be be transmitted from one human to another, resulting in a global pandemic. So far, bird flu has only been directly transmitted from bird to human.
Tamiflu, which does not cure a flu infection but reduces the severity of symptoms and secondary complications such as bronchitis and pneumonia, is the most effective treatment for avian flu so far. If taken within two days of symptoms starting, it would reduce the risk of fatality.
The drug has boosted Roche’s profits as governments have begun stockpiling the drug in readiness for a pandemic - 40 governments have placed orders with Roche turning Tamiflu into a blockbuster - but Roche has come under international pressure to license the drug to other developers to dramatically increase worldwide production. It currently has the global manufacturing and distribution rights of the drug until 2016.
On Monday, a study released by the World Bank, said that an outbreak of bird flu in humans would cost industrialized nations $550 bn, with the cost to the whole world “significantly larger.” In the US alone, economic losses associated with death of between100,000 and 200,000 and additional sickness was estimated at between $100 and $200bn.