October 11, 2005

Public health or drug company profits?

Tamiflu is one of two anti-viral drugs that could help reduce the severity of avian flu infections, should a pandemic occur. Only one company makes it — Roche — but its production capacity is far too small to provide the doses of Tamiflu needed for the US, let alone for any other country. Given this bottleneck, Roche is under increasing pressure to allow other companies to produce generic versions of Tamiflu.

Some of the pressure is coming from the UN, where Secretary General Kofi Annan said that the world body will 'not allow intellectual property to get into the way of access of the poor to medication... [In] this situation, we will take the measures to make sure poor and rich have access to the medication and the vaccine required. And the decision should be taken ahead of time so that we don't have to quibble about it when the critical and the crisis moment arrive."

Roche is resisting the call for generics, saying that the production process for Tamiflu is a dangerous and complicated 12-month process, and that it would any generic drug producer three years to gear up for the task. That view, however, is not shared by everyone:

Dr. Kou Hsu-sung, the director general of Taiwan's Center for Disease Control, was even more critical, saying that Taiwanese scientists knew how to make Tamiflu and were trying to balance respect for Roche's intellectual property with Taiwan's national security.

"We are disappointed that W.H.O. refused to press Roche to make it a generic in a situation like this," he said.

Dr. Kuo said Tuesday morning that Roche was overstating the difficulty of Tamiflu production and that Taiwanese government scientists had devised a way to begin mass production quickly.

"Within a couple months, we can do that if we solve the problem" of patent protection, he said, adding that Taiwan was consulting lawyers and considering whether to offer compensation if it produced the drug without permission.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the main drug industry lobbying group in the US, opposes such unilateral moves, making the usual argument that drug companies make whenever someone talks about any policy that would cut into industry profits: Lower profits reduce drug companies' incentive to develop new drugs.

We'll see which of the above views wins out if a highly contagious form of avian flu crosses from birds to humans.

Via NY Times.

Posted by Magpie at October 11, 2005 11:33 AM | Health/Medicine/Health Care | Technorati links |