The European Commission (search) said Thursday pharmaceutical company Roche Holding AG would increase production of its anti-viral medicine to build up preventive stocks in response to the bird-flu scare.
Roche Chief Executive Franz Humer (search) promised the European Commission not to allow patents to "stand in the way of making licensing arrangements with [other] companies," EU spokesman Philip Tod said.
The Swiss company's Tamiflu (search) drug is seen as the most effective medical defense against a flu pandemic, which could result if the virus causing the current outbreak of bird flu mutates into a virulent human influenza strain.
Roche, which has an exclusive patent to make Tamiflu until 2016, is under growing international pressure to ease its control on the manufacture of the drug as governments and companies stockpile it. The company stressed that it is talking to governments and other companies to produce more of the drug. Seven of the 13 sites making Tamiflu are controlled by subcontractors.
Roche said it has received requests for licensing agreements from more than 100 companies and governments. Roche spokeswoman Martina Rupp said talks on boosting production were still at an early stage and have not yet yielded concrete results.
"It is our goal to boost production capacities in as short a period as possible," she said, both within the company and with existing partners as well as by issuing licensing agreements with new manufacturers.
Rupp said it was important for Roche to check thoroughly whether licensees could produce "substantial amounts in a certain period," and whether they fulfilled "quality, security and regulatory requirements."
"If you can boost production with third parties that is very positive for everyone involved. As a Tamiflu producer we have a certain responsibility and we are meeting that. We are meeting our social responsibility as a producer of one component of the pandemic plan," she said.
The commission also urged all 25 member states to place orders for Tamiflu. Five countries have not yet said how much of the drug they want to stock.
Tod said Roche had promised to fill orders on a first-come-first-serve basis but would also make sure smaller quantities were delivered quickly.
The European Commission said it had no figures for how much of the drug EU governments have ordered and was making no recommendations on how much countries might need.
The World Health Organization advises governments to keep enough anti-viral drugs and regular human flu vaccines for at least 25 percent of their populations.
Last month, Roche said third-quarter sales of Tamiflu more than doubled to 279 million Swiss francs ($215 million) from 110 million francs because of government and private demand. More than one-third of sales were made to individual buyers who are purchasing the prescription at the full retail price. Governments receive a 50 percent discount.
In the past two years, Roche has doubled its Tamiflu production and by mid-2006 global production capacity for the drug will have increased eight to tenfold compared to 2003. The company temporarily suspended sales to U.S. wholesalers last month after it received some large purchases from suspected hoarders.