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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 October 2005, 10:51 GMT 11:51 UK
Roche considers flu drug partners
Packets of antiviral drug Tamiflu
Roche says it wants to increase supplies of Tamiflu
Drug firm Roche may allow other companies to produce its antiviral drug Tamiflu under licence to help combat a potential flu pandemic.

The Swiss firm is considering ways of boosting output of Tamiflu, the main treatment for the deadly strain of bird flu which struck Asia last year.

Roche is now producing Tamiflu at 13 sites worldwide and has received orders for the drug from 40 countries.

The World Health Organization advised countries to stockpile supplies.

Emergency supplies

The WHO has warned that a flu pandemic could potentially kill up to seven million people, although others warn of a much higher death toll.

Roche's Tamiflu drug is seen as the most effective treatment for the H5N1 strain, which killed 60 people in Asia in 2003, but it is not a vaccine.

We have made enormous strides in our production expansion..but clearly more is needed
David Reddy, Roche

The company said on Tuesday that it was willing to consider licensing production of the drug to other manufacturers and governments to secure adequate emergency supplies in the event of a pandemic.

The move comes after Indian firm, Cipla, said recently it was ready to begin production of a generic version of the drug.

Growing demand

Roche is under pressure to meet growing demand for Tamiflu amid reports of pharmacists in Europe selling out of the antiviral drug.

It has doubled production in each of the past two years and will do so again in 2006. It is currently manufacturing more than 100 million capsules a year.

Roche said it wanted to make more supplies available, particularly to low-income countries.

It has yet to be approached by any generic drugs manufacturers about Tamiflu and said it would only consider firms with the capacity to produce the drug to the necessary quality and safety standards.

Open to discussions

"We have made enormous strides in our production expansion and we are continuing to expand but clearly more is needed," David Reddy, Roche's head of pandemic sales for Tamiflu, told the BBC.

"If other groups believe that they can contribute to this, then the door is open. We are open-minded to any kind of discussions."

Tamiflu's patent is held by US firm Gilead but Roche licensed it several years ago and carried out all the clinical development work for the drug.

Mr Reddy said he believed intellectual property issues "did not have get in the way" of negotiating licensing agreements.

Roche has been approached by one government in Asia about potentially making a generic version of the drug but did not reveal its identity.

The company also said it could not reveal details of where it currently manufactures the drug, citing security concerns.

However, it confirmed that it had received approval from the US authorities to develop a Tamiflu manufacturing site there.

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