Swiss drugmaker Roche Holding AG (search) said Monday it will increase production of Tamiflu to make 300 million treatments of the antiviral drug annually by 2007 in order to meet government orders amid fears of a flu pandemic.

Roche said the increase would mean a tenfold rise in production from 2004, when a decision was made to start boosting production.

"Patients' needs in case of a pandemic remain our top priority," said Chief Executive William M. Burns (search).

Orders for the antiviral drug have soared as health experts have been pinning their hopes on Tamiflu (search) in case the bird flu that has spread from Asia to southeast Europe mutates so that it could pass easily between people. While there is no human vaccine for the spreading strain of bird flu, scientists believe Tamiflu may help humans fight a mutated virus.

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.

Basel-based Roche said it had received requests from more than 150 governments and companies to assist in producing the drug. The requests consist of offers either to produce a generic version of Tamiflu under license or become involved in its outsourced production.

Roche said it had begun negotiations with eight companies, which included "large generic manufacturers and major pharmaceutical companies," and a number of governments such as Taiwan and Vietnam.

"We have entered into discussions with a number of interested parties to expand worldwide supply, so governments can be as prepared as possible for when the influenza pandemic happens," Burns said.

The company said it was hoping to select by the end of the month potential partners for increasing production of Tamiflu.

The World Health Organization advises governments to keep enough antiviral drugs and regular human flu vaccines for at least 25 percent of their populations, but Roche cannot keep up with demand.

Last month, the company temporarily halted Tamiflu shipments to private U.S. suppliers after a number of large purchases by companies or private entities who appeared to be hoarding the drug. Roche officials in Switzerland, Germany and Canada also disclosed that they were limiting distribution to pharmacies.

But in southeast Asia, where health officials say a human flu pandemic would be most likely to begin, national stockpiles of Tamiflu are much smaller.

About 600 health experts and planners started a three-day meeting at WHO headquarters in Geneva on Monday, the first attempt to devise a global strategy in case the bird flu virus changes to transmit easily among humans.