Roche makes right decision on bird flu drug, but delay could hurt fragile pharma industry
"Bird flu 'could claim 50,000 lives' in Britain," screamed the front page of The Daily Mail, the UK's most aggressive monger of scares, as bird flu panic swept Europe, where I've been fortunate enough to spend the past couple of weeks.
The hysteria surrounding bird flu notwithstanding - and so far, the average European is as likely to be killed by a falling piano as by any avian virus - the media on both sides of the Atlantic have been devoting considerable coverage to the subject and to Roche, which manufacturers Tamiflu, the only drug known to be effective in treating it.
Roche has attracted some criticism for what many perceive to be a tardy response to the crisis. The Swiss drug maker had pledged to build a manufacturing plant in the US before year's end, but supplies from that plant would not be available until next year. In the meantime, Tamiflu is being rationed on a first-come-first-served basis - and the US, which seems to be characteristically unprepared, is nowhere near the top of the waiting list.
The drug was actually invented by a US company, Gilead Sciences, which granted the manufacturing license to Roche and began legal action to force that company to relinquish those rights in an attempt to ramp up production. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), meanwhile, accused the company of "putting [its] own interest ahead of world health."
Eventually, Roche relented and has now provided four generic drug companies with a license to produce Tamiflu.
But the perception that the company was putting its intellectual property rights ahead of public health concerns gave the pharmaceutical industry another black eye - one it does not need at a time when criticism of drug companies is reaching a crescendo in several parts of the world.
Even the decision to license the drug sparked controversy, with some commentators voicing suspicion that the company's about-face came as the result of pressure from European governments - understandably anxious after the flu reached Europe - in marked contrast to Roche's resistance to earlier pressure from Asian officials.
The whole issue of intellectual property is both complex and delicate, and there's no question that pharmaceutical companies have a right to defend what's theirs. Indeed, it's in all our interest that they do so, seeing as continued innovation depends on their ability to profit from their research. At the same time, standing stubbornly on one's rights during a major public health scare seems crass - and has the potential to create a backlash that could damage an already vulnerable industry.
Roche's decision was the correct one. Let's hope it didn't squander any goodwill derived from doing the right thing by its perceived delays.
- Paul Holmes has spent the past 18 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.