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Roche agrees to discuss Tamiflu licenses
Senators say Swiss firm will meet with generic drug firms about letting them make flu treatment.
October 20, 2005: 2:58 PM EDT
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WASHINGTON (CNN) - With demand for a treatment against bird flu far outstripping its capacity to produce it, the maker of Tamiflu agreed Thursday to meet with four generic drug makers to arrange for them to produce the drug too, Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said.

Roche Pharmaceuticals, which holds the exclusive rights to the antiviral agent, has also agreed not to increase the price of sublicenses, said the senators, who made the announcement in a written statement after meeting with George Abercrombie, the company's chief executive officer.

Roche "has essentially agreed to share its technology and the rights to manufacture this drug with other companies who are willing to help out," Schumer said.

He identified Teva Pharmaceuticals (down $0.28 to $36.45, Research), Barr Laboratories, Mylan Laboratories (up $0.10 to $20.74, Research) and Ranbaxy Laboratories as the other drug makers.

In a separate statement, Abercrombie confirmed the discussion.

"I reiterated to the senators Roche's commitment to do whatever is needed to prepare for a pandemic," he said. "We at Roche recognize the global health emergency posed by the threat of an avian flu pandemic, and we understand that as the manufacturer of Tamiflu we play a central role in preparedness."

The World Health Organization has recommended that countries prepare for a possible pandemic of bird flu by stockpiling antiviral treatments such as Tamiflu.

Roche has said it has received orders from about 40 countries and cannot meet the demand for the product, which requires a lengthy, complex manufacturing process.

Tamiflu is one of two drugs known to reduce the severity and length of sickness caused by influenza.

Even if world supplies of the drug are boosted, it is not clear how useful they would prove in the event of a pandemic.

"For cases of human infection with H5N1, the drugs may improve prospects of survival, if administered early, but clinical data are limited," the WHO says on its Web site.

"Despite an advance warning that has lasted almost two years, the world is ill-prepared to defend itself during a pandemic," the WHO said.

Only about 40 nations have developed preparedness plans, it added.

The move is a prophylactic one: though the disease has spread into Europe from Asia, it remains largely confined to birds.

Still, the WHO has documented 118 cases of human infection, 61 of them fatal.

Should the disease retain its lethality as it gains the ability to spread easily among people, the impact could prove incalculable.

The meetings with the drug makers will be carried out in cooperation with the Department of Health and Human Services, the senators said.

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