BASEL, Switzerland (AP) _ Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche Holding AG said Tuesday it was building a new plant in the United States to boost production of its Tamiflu drug amid fears of a global flu pandemic.
Orders for the drug have soared as health experts have been pinning their hopes on the antiviral Tamiflu, in case the bird flu mutates so that it could pass easily between people.
While there is no human vaccine for the current strain of bird flu that has spread from Asia to southeast Europe, scientists believe the Tamiflu drug may help humans fight a mutated virus.
Roche said it could now go ahead with its plans to expand production in the United States because it had received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the new plant, which it said would be one of more than a dozen production facilities worldwide. It did not disclose the location of the new manufacturing site.
``For Tamiflu, the key need today is the rapid expansion of production capacity,'' said William M. Burns, chief executive of Roche's pharmaceuticals division. ``In addition, we are prepared to discuss all available options, including granting sub-licenses, with any government or private company who approach us to manufacture Tamiflu or collaborate with us in its manufacturing.''
Roche, the sole manufacturer of Tamiflu, has ruled out relinquishing the patent for the drug, which is protected until 2016. But it also has said it was seeking other companies to help speed up its production due to the increased demand.
By the middle of next year, the company says, it will have boosted production tenfold in comparison to 2003.
Roche shares gained 2.2 percent to 192.10 Swiss francs (US$148.74; euro123.68) in midmorning trading on the Zurich exchange.
Last week, the Indian drug company Cipla Ltd. said it planned to bring a generic version of Tamiflu to market early next year, thus filling any potential shortages in the event of a bird flu epidemic.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said this month that usual patent rules may have to be suspended if there is an outbreak of the disease so that other companies could jump in and make the medicine.
So far, nearly all the 100-plus people who have caught bird flu got it directly from birds. More than 60 people have died, but the virus has not been effective at spreading between people.