Roche unveils plan to boost employer antiviral stockpiling

Jun 26, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – With an endorsement from US health officials, Roche, maker of the antiviral drug oseltamivir (Tamiflu), today unveiled a program to encourage more businesses to stockpile the drug to protect employees in case of an influenza pandemic.

Roche officials, speaking at a press conference, said the program is designed to remove some of the obstacles that have made many businesses hesitate to stockpile the drug, which is recommended as first-line treatment in a pandemic. For an annual fee, companies can secure a supply of Tamiflu, which will be stored, secured, rotated, and kept current by Roche. If and when the company requests its supply, Roche will guarantee delivery within 48 hours in most instances.

George Abercrombie, chief executive officer and president of Hoffman-La Roche, Inc., told reporters that more than 300 US businesses have already stockpiled Tamiflu, but hundreds more have made inquiries and are seeking more flexible options. "This is a solution to address uncertainties in corporate planning and maximize the return on their planning investment," he said.

The cost of storage and the risk that the drug will expire before it's needed are factors that put the cost of stockpiling programs beyond the reach of many companies, Abercrombie said.

On Jun 3, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released draft guidance on employer antiviral stockpiling. It urges businesses to consider stockpiling antivirals to protect their workers and maintain business operations, especially for those that provide critical goods and services.

At today's press conference, HHS officials were on hand to praise Roche's new program. Deputy Secretary Tevi Troy said the program is an example of a good partnership with the federal government.

"Preparation is a shared responsibility, and businesses and private industry can contribute greatly to community resiliency," he said.

Roche and HHS officials emphasized that the federal government is not subsidizing or contributing in any way to the new business stockpiling program, except to voice support.

Last year, Roche said it had to scale back production of Tamiflu because demand was waning, according to a previous report. Today the company  said the business stockpiling initiative is expected to increase demand for the drug and better prepare the world for an influenza pandemic.

Abercrombie said the company has the capacity to produce 400 million courses per year,  but governments have purchased only 215 million "We can't have plants and supply lines sitting idle indefinitely," he said.

How the program works
The annual fee for the program is $6 per 10-tablet treatment course, or roughly one-sixth the purchase cost. The minimum order is 2,500 courses. Abercrombie said the company had to set a threshold that can cover the cost and effort required to handle the dedicated Tamiflu supplies. However, he said Roche will monitor the feedback it receives on the minimum-order policy.

Roche reserves and stores each company's requested stockpile amount, officials said. It also rotates stock to ensure that each firm's supply is within its 5-year expiration date. If a business opts to receive its supply, Roche said it guarantees delivery, in most cases, within 48 hour of a request.

The company sets aside each businesses' entire amount, Roche spokesman Terrence Hurley confirmed in an e-mail to CIDRAP News today. "That's the value of the program. Companies have their stockpile of Tamiflu available and ready to ship when they want it," he wrote. Once companies request their order, they pay the wholesale cost for it.

Companies can renew their order each year or discontinue their participation.

Roche officials said companies must decide whether to base their stockpile amount on treatment, prophylaxis, or a combination of the two. The general recommendation for treatment is one dose twice a day for 4 or 5 days. For prophylaxis, the recommendation is one dose each day an individual is exposed to the virus.

In its draft recommendations, HHS says businesses may want to buy antivirals:

  • To provide prophylaxis for frontline healthcare and emergency workers
  • To protect workers who are needed to maintain essential community services
  • To provide early treatment for workers who fall ill
  • To protect overseas employees and operations in areas where federal pandemic response activities will not reach

Reactions from the business sector
Karen Dye, director of global business continuity for Sun Microsystems, told CIDRAP News that one potential drawback of Roche's program is that it is only available to US employers. For example, she said Sun Microsystems, based in Santa Clara, Calif., operates in more than 100 countries, with 60% of its workforce living outside the United States.

However, she said the program would probably encourage US-based businesses to stockpile antivirals and added that her company would probably be interested in learning more about the program if it had more global coverage.

Abercrombie said Roche is rolling out the program first in the United States and will later make it available to businesses in other countries. "Our intent is to replicate it throughout the world," he told reporters.

Ann Beauchesne, executive director of the US Chamber of Commerce's homeland security policy division, said the program will likely motivate more companies to stockpile antivirals. "I think this actually might get those companies that were on the fence or considering stockpiling to do it," she told CIDRAP News. "I think the Roche announcement does take some of our concerns off the table, especially the shelf-life issue and potential seizure [of antivirals during a pandemic emergency] by the states."

See also:

Jun 26 Roche press release

Jun 3 CIDRAP News story "HHS offers pandemic guidance on masks, antivirals"

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