Jul 25, 2006 (CIDRAP News) Pharmaceutical maker Roche has drawn sharp criticism for promoting the sale of its antiviral drug oseltamivir (Tamiflu) to businesses while governments stockpiling the drug for defense against a possible flu pandemic wait to receive their own supplies, according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle.
In releasing a pandemic planning guide for US businesses last week, the Swiss-based company said that "close to 60" companies had ordered Tamiflu in quantities ranging up to hundreds of thousands of treatment courses. The firm said its planning "Toolkit" provides guidance on how to buy and distribute the drug. Though government policies discourage personal stockpiling, the guide suggests that businesses can give Tamiflu to employees for storage at home.
In a story published Jul 23, the Chronicle quoted several medical and policy experts who criticized Roche's action, asserting that government orders for Tamiflu should come first.
"I think it is socially irresponsible," said Dr. Brian Johnston, a Los Angeles emergency physician and trustee of the California Medical Association, according to the story.
James Love, director of the Consumer Project on Technology, said he believes that Roche is giving corporations priority over governments because the corporations pay much more for the drug.
Businesses pay $61 per treatment course, a pack of 10 pills, while wealthy countries pay $19 and poor countries pay slightly less, according to the Chronicle.
The federal government has a stated goal of stockpiling enough antiviral drugs to treat 81 million people, or about 25% of the population, by 2008. But that includes a projected 31 million courses in state stockpiles, with the states paying 75% of the cost.
So far the federal stockpile contains 6.2 million treatment courses, with a total of 21.6 million expected by December, the newspaper reported, quoting federal officials.
Roche officials maintained that the criticism of the marketing program is unjustified, because the company has succeeded in boosting production sufficiently to assure that there will be enough Tamiflu for all customers, the story said.
The firm has made deals with 15 subcontractors to handle various parts of the production process. This will boost production capacity to 400 million treatment courses by the end of this year, the report said. Roche spokesman Terry Hurley in Nutley, N.J., told the newspaper the company currently has orders for "about half of that."
"Corporate orders are being filled within days," Hurley said. "Roche has ensured sufficient supply of Tamfilu to fill government orders, and there is adequate supply of Tamiflu to meet season demand."
Roche officials also defended their marketing effort as merely a way to help businesses protect their workers and to ensure that businesses can survive and help countries weather the pandemic, according to the Chronicle.
Holly Babin, a spokeswoman for the US Department of Health and Human Services, told the newspaper that federal policy does not specifically address whether corporations should buy their own Tamiflu supplies. But she said HHS still recommends against personal stockpiling of the drug.
Roche's "Pandemic Planning Toolkit" page