Roche yesterday said it would donate 30 million doses of its influenza drug Tamiflu (oseltamivir) to the World Health Organisation’s so-called “Rapid Response Stockpile” as part of a bid to combat the threat of a pandemic.

Influenza pandemics occur approximately once every 40 years, and experts have warned that it is a case of when not if. The H5N1 strain of avian flu that is rampaging around Asia is the most likely candidate and could prove catastrophic should human-to-human transmission become more efficient through viral mutation: influenza pandemics in the last century resulted in over 16 million deaths.

Roche has been working with governments to ensure stockpiling of Tamiflu, an oral agent that has prophylactic activity against the H5N1 virus and may be effective against any mutating strain. Many governments - including those of Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Korea - have already stockpiled Tamiflu, but other countries are being urged to ensure plans are in place. Said Lee Jong Wook, WHO Director General: “It is critical that all countries take additional steps now to protect their citizens from contracting or further spreading influenza during the next pandemic.”

Roche’s 30 million doses of Tamiflu translates into 3 million treatments, and calls have also been made to stockpile GlaxoSmithKline’s offering Relenza (zanamivir), which researchers in The Lancet said "has fewer adverse reactions and a favourable resistance profile," but has not thus far been considered because of concerns that young children and others may not be able to use the inhalation device appropriately [[15/08/05c]].

Roche, in the meantime, has stepped up its manufacturing capacity for Tamiflu, which has a 12-month production lead-time. It doubled capacity in 2004 and 2005, with a further increase planned for 2006.

- Meanwhile, reports have suggested that GSK is planning to expand the labeling for Relenza to include influenza prevention. The news will please originator Biota Holdings, which is suing the UK giant on the grounds that it has failed to properly support Relenza [[28/07/05e]]. One of its gripes was that GSK did not pursue a claim for flu prevention.