WASHINGTON - The manufacturer of the drug most effective in treating bird flu will negotiate with generic drug companies to increase production of Tamiflu, two senators said Thursday.
Bird flu has killed more than 60 people since late 2003, all of them in Asia. Most human cases have been linked to contact with sick birds. But health officials warn the virus could mutate into a form that can be easily passed between humans, possibly triggering a global pandemic that could kill millions.
Swiss-based Roche Holding AG will meet with four companies and maybe more in coming weeks in an effort to work out licensing agreements that would allow other companies to produce Tamiflu, which is in great demand throughout the world.
"The bottleneck on Tamiflu has basically been broken," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said after meeting with George Abercrombie, head of Roche Pharmaceuticals in North America.
Abercrombie did not talk with reporters, but he said in a statement that Roche had agreed to enter into discussions with other companies before the meeting with Schumer and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
"We continue to take the steps necessary to protect the health of people on a worldwide basis, and to make Tamiflu available wherever it is needed for both seasonal influenza and pandemic stockpiling," he said.
Generic manufacturers cannot legally sell the patented drug in the West and parts of Asia. Roche holds the patent. Companies would need permission from Roche - and government approval - to make the drug.
"We've called some of the leading generic drug companies in the United States, who told us that, with Roche's cooperation, they could make Tamiflu within a month, without Roche's cooperation, within three months," Schumer said. "Roche has agreed to meet with these companies as soon as possible."
Those four companies are Teva Pharmaceuticals Industries Ltd., Barr Pharmaceuticals Inc., Mylan Laboratories Inc. and Ranbaxy Laboratories Ltd. Each believes it can produce Tamiflu if given the chance, the senators said.
Neither Schumer nor Roche discussed what kind of fees the company would charge for licenses to produce the drug.
Mylan Laboratories said it is prepared to produce significant volumes of Tamiflu. Officials said Schumer contacted the company, and they want to work with Roche and the U.S. government.
"Mylan is uniquely positioned to respond to this need for increased production of Tamiflu," said Robert J. Coury, Mylan's vice chairman and chief executive. "We have always structured our manufacturing capacity to be able to rapidly respond to urgent needs such as this one and we stand ready to contribute to the production of this important medication."
The Health and Human Services Department has purchased 4.3 million doses of Tamiflu. Some 2.3 million doses have been delivered; the remaining doses are expected to arrive very shortly.
Some health care experts say that if a pandemic occurs, countries should expect that about 25 percent of the population would be stricken. Treating about a quarter of the U.S. population would require about 73 million doses.
Roche said Thursday it was halting wholesale deliveries of its anti-influenza drug Tamiflu in Germany because of concerns it was being hoarded and would not be available when the flu season hits later this year.
Physicians in Germany can still get the drug directly from the company if their patients need it, spokesman Hans-Ulrich Jelitto said.