In the face of declining sales of its antiviral Tamiflu, Roche has come up with an innovative plan to encourage US employers to reserve supplies of the flu drug in case of a pandemic.

The Switzerland-headquartered firm’s US subsidiary is introducing “a flexible purchase programme” that will allow businesses to maintain access to their own stockpile of Tamiflu (oseltamivir) for use in a pandemic situation, “with limited upfront investment and more adaptability to deal with unknown factors inherent in pandemic planning”.

Under the new scheme, employers will pay a nominal annual fee, $6 for every ten capsules of the treatment, to “reserve” their own stockpile of Tamiflu, which Roche will store and rotate to keep “in date.” Upon delivery, companies would pay the prevailing wholesale price, currently $74 per 10-pack and the scheme initially requires a minimum order of 2,500 10-capsule packs. Roche will guarantee delivery within 48 hours in most circumstances.

“This programme addresses questions we’ve heard from executives, who are interested in securing Tamiflu for their employees, but desire more flexible planning options, especially with regard to timing,” said Mike McGuire, vice president of anti-infectives for Roche. He added that “we think this option will present something of a ‘tipping point’ for some companies, allowing them to create the best possible situation for the health of their business as well as their employees”.

The move has been welcomed by the US government and Tevi Troy, deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, said that "preparedness is a shared responsibility that extends across all levels of government and all levels of society”. It should also provide a long-term boost for flagging Tamiflu sales which fell 19% last year to $1.92 billion, as government stockpiling in wake of bird-flu fears subsided.

Roche and NICE in stand-off over Avastin
Meantime, back on this side of the Atlantic, Roche is involved in a stand-off with the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence after the latter said that for the moment that it will not recommend coverage on the National Health Service for Avastin (bevacizumab) as a first-line treatment for lung and breast cancers. The reason given by NICE was that the Basel-based firm has declined to provide data on the clinical and cost-effectiveness of the product.

NICE chief executive Andrew Dillon did not rule out a change in that position, stating that “if sufficient evidence does become available in the future, we may take the opportunity to review and to revise our advice to the NHS.” Meanwhile, Sir Michael Rawlins, chairman of NICE, suggested that Roche would rather not supply the drug in the UK than risk a negative opinion.

Roche spokesperson Greg Page responded by noting that the firm had decided not to supply the requested data because the company's own evaluation showed the product was too expensive to meet the agency’s criteria. He described the situation as “unfortunate”, noting that Avastin in this indication is already provided by healthcare systems in 14 European countries where price has not proved to be an obstacle.

Avastin costs £3,600 a month for a typical lung or breast cancer patient, and NICE previously recommended against NHS coverage of the treatment for colorectal cancer at a price of about £1,800 pounds ($3579) per month.