Roche is gearing up production of its in-demand oral flu drug, Tamiflu (oseltamivir), and has signed up third-party manufacturers to assist it as the World Health Organisation calls for countries to stockpile the compound in the event of a bird flu pandemic.

Roche has already doubled capacity of Tamiflu – which has a complicated manufacturing process and a 12-month lead-time - during 2004 and 2005, with a further increase planned for 2006 [[25/08/05a]]. However, the Swiss giant has stressed that it will not outsource Tamiflu’s production and, in a statement, asserted: “Roche will have increased its manufacturing capacity eight-10 fold by mid-2006, through significant investments in internal and external capacity. Roche…fully intends to remain the sole manufacturer of Tamiflu.”

The news marks a complete reversal of fortunes for Tamiflu. Just last year, sales had declined 22% to 330 million Swiss francs due to the relatively mild flu season [[02/02/05a]], and partner Gilead Sciences launched a suit to claw back the drug saying that Roche had failed to promote it adequately [[27/06/05a]]. However, fears over a pandemic of bird flu have turned this on its head, with the first six months alone pulling in 580 million francs in Tamiflu revenues. And, for 2005, analysts are forecasting Tamiflu sales will reach a not insignificant 800 million francs ($617 million).

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 already said it will donate 30 million doses of its influenza drug to the WHO’s so-called "rapid response stockpile" as part of a bid to combat the pandemic [[25/08/05a]].