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Roche: WHO Can Treat 5 million with Tamiflu fast

Mon, 04/27/2009 - 4:55am
ALEXANDER G. HIGGINS Associated Press Writer GENEVA (AP) — Swiss drug company Roche Holding AG said Monday the World Health Organization has enough of the anti-flu treatment Tamiflu stockpiled to treat up to 5 million people who come down with the new strain of swine flu that broke out in Mexico. "That is on 24 hours standby," said Roche spokeswoman Martina Rupp. The WHO-controlled stockpiles are in addition to millions more treatments held ready by 85 to 90 governments, Rupp told The Associated Press. Three-fifths of the WHO stockpiles are held at Roche facilities in the United States and Switzerland and the remaining amount is stored by WHO at different locations around the world, Rupp said. The stockpiles held at Roche have been donated to WHO and they can be shipped as soon as WHO gives the word, Rupp said. "They are actually for those countries that are not so well prepared yet," Rupp said. The firm based in Basel, Switzerland, also can ramp up production to make 400 million treatments a year, and already has key ingredients ready, she said. Roche has agreements with drug makers in South Africa, India and China that allow for more production, but she said she was unable to give figures for production under sublicense agreements. Britain and Japan have recently given new orders for Tamiflu because they are doubling their stockpiles, Rupp said. Tamiflu has been regarded as a first defense against an influenza pandemic since it was shown to be effective against the bird flu outbreak in Asia in recent years. WHO has said it also is effective against the new strain of swine flu. A full treatment takes five days — 10 capsules taken two a day starting within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. Countries are rushing to develop contingency plans in case the suspected swine flu being blamed for over 1,600 infections and suspected in up to 103 deaths in Mexico spreads rapidly around the world. Roche began increasing production of Tamiflu in 2005 after the outbreak of bird flu in Asia, but Rupp said it began cutting back in 2007 as government stockpiles filled up. The company built up the capacity to make 4 billion capsules a year, or 400 million treatments, Rupp said. "It was a capacity that was never used because demand was just not that high," she said. "It's obvious. You cannot keep that up and not use it. So we announced that we are going to scale it down." At the same time Roche said it would keep enough ingredients on hand to expedite the ramp up of manufacturing if needed, said Rupp. She noted that WHO said in 2005 that stockpiling in advance is the only way to ensure sufficient supplies are available at the start of a pandemic and that anti-viral medicine is just part of the overall plan that countries have to have in place. Roche shares rose 4.3 percent to 145.60 Swiss francs ($127.88) on the Zurich exchange Monday.
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