The US Government looks set to continue its spending spree on drugs and vaccines to answer the threat of an influenza pandemic, according to media reports which suggest it is negotiating with Roche for a further supply of its flu drug Tamiflu (oseltamivir).

The Financial Times said the order for Tamiflu, an oral neuraminidase inhibitor - could be worth up to $1 billion dollars, a figure neither confirmed nor denied by the company. The report comes just days after the US Department of Health and Human Services placed a $100 million order for a flu vaccine in clinical development at Sanofi-Pasteur and a smaller $2.8 million order for GlaxoSmithKline’s intranasal neuraminidase inhibitor Relenza (zanamivir) [[16/09/05a]].

Although the value of the order for Tamiflu seems enormous, last year the HHS published a draft influenza pandemic response plan in which Roche’s drug was specifically named as an antiviral drug that should lie at the heart of the national defence strategy and be stockpiled by the US government.

Tamiflu is active against all strains of influenza viruses - including the avian H5N1 that is currently circulating in the Far East and is thought to be a strain that could escalate to pandemic proportions. The USA placed a sizeable order or the drug in advance of last year’s flu season, saying this summer that has amassed enough Tamiflu capsules to treat approximately 2.26 million adults and suspension to treat nearly 110,000 children.

Meanwhile, the UK government is also stockpiling the product [[01/03/05e]] and Roche has already donated 30 million doses to the World Health Organisation [[25/08/05a]].

This activity suggests a major turnaround for Tamiflu, which suffered from weak demand in the 2004/5 flu season as sales dropped by more than a fifth. This was followed by a lawsuit from its co-development partner for the drug, Gilead Sciences, seeking to regain rights to the product on the grounds that Roche was not pushing it hard enough [[27/06/05a]]. With sales rising fourfold in the first half of this year to reach 580 million Swiss francs, Roche is now struggling to make sure production capacity can meet demand. It has already doubled capacity in 2004 and 2005, with a further increase planned for 2006 [[25/08/05a]].