GENEVA – Swiss drugmaker Roche Holding AG said Friday it has granted a sublicense to an Indian pharmaceutical maker to produce the antiviral drug Tamiflu, the medicine believed to be the most efficient treatment for the human version of the bird-flu virus.
The deal allows Hetero Drugs to produce a generic version of Tamiflu for developing countries seeking to stockpile the drug in case of a flu pandemic, Roche said in a statement.
Bird flu has killed at least 71 people in Asia since 2003.
"We are pleased to announce the partnership with Hetero Drugs as the latest step in our scale-up efforts to meet the needs of governments in preparing for the potential public health threat posed by avian influenza," said David Reddy, who heads Roche's influenza pandemic task force.
Roche owns the right to produce and supply Tamiflu, but it has come under increasing international pressure to ease its monopoly grip on the drug. The company has been pressed to step up production, cut prices and allow other companies to make copies of the drug.
Earlier this month, Roche said it had chosen 12 potential partners for the production of Tamiflu and granted a sublicense to the China-based Shanghai Pharmaceutical to produce the drug to meet Chinese government orders.
Roche said the agreement with Hetero would help speed up delivery of the drug, also known as oseltamivir, to "some of the world's poorest countries."
Baschi Duerr, a spokesman at the Basel-based company, said the sublicense was granted strictly to meet government orders from India and other developing countries for pandemic planning. It does not allow Hetero to sell the drug to retailers, he said.
Hetero was chosen because it had demonstrated that it meets "the criteria which Roche defined in terms of technical ability, capacity and the speed of bringing that capacity on stream," the company said.
B. Parthasaradhi Reddy, chairman and managing director of Hetero Drugs, told The Associated Press that his company hopes to supply 1 million capsules to the Indian government by January.
Hetero, which began developing a generic copy of Tamiflu two-and-a-half years ago, plans to scale up production to service possible orders from governments of poor countries with flexible patent laws, he said.
The generic version will be 30 percent to 35 percent cheaper than Tamiflu, Hetero's Reddy said. He didn't disclose any financial details of the sublicensing agreement between the two companies.
While Roche said the deal would immediately boost Tamiflu's availability, it reiterated that it was on schedule to meet government orders for the drug.
The drug giant says it already can produce 300 million annual treatments with existing partners such as Mylan Laboratories Inc. of Pittsburgh or Israeli drugmaker Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, covering the more than 50 countries around the world that have bought or ordered supplies of Tamiflu for pandemic stockpiles.
Roche shares fell 0.4 percent to 195.50 Swiss francs ($149.31) in Zurich trading.