Kate Nicholas: Bird flu patents raise the reputation stakes

Pharmaceutical patent protection probably means little to most people, despite the best efforts of pressure groups to highlight its impact on the developing world. But with bird flu winging its way to our shores and the Government frustrated at attempts to stockpile treatments, the public are beginning to question why more drugs are not available.

And as the media turn their attention to the companies failing to supply the drugs in sufficient quantities, patent protection is becoming a headline issue.

There is real potential here for pharmas to be cast as the bad guys who let a pandemic run rife rather than share the potentially gigantic profits created by a catastrophe. This, coupled with the likelihood that governments will take the licensing decision out of their hands, is probably why GlaxoSmithKline announced its willingness to sub-
licence the production of its flu treatment, Relenza, to outside 'partners' last week.

So far Relenza has played second fiddle to Roche's Tamiflu in the media, and has had to fight perceptions that, as an inhaler, it is less reliable than the Tamiflu capsule. However, with the announcement that it is boosting its own production while allowing outside licensing, GSK has  – in the eyes of City analysts at least – avoided the problems dogging Roche, which is struggling to meet demand from governments. Analysts are now predicting a further £800m in sales of Relenza on the back of GSK's boosted production capacity.

The company is also busy promoting its commitment to developing a vaccine against the dreaded H5N1 strain, announcing last week that clinical trials are about to begin. GSK chief executive Jean Pierre Garnier told reporters that the company was 'pulling out all the stops to help governments have their planning in place'.

Meanwhile, US senator Charles E Schumer has accused Roche of 'putting its own interests ahead of world health', and has threatened to 'pursue a legislative remedy' unless Roche licenses out the patent for Tamiflu by mid-November.

Roche claims it plans to increase production, has approval to build a new manufacturing facility in the US and is willing to discuss sub-licences. However, it also says the complex production process would take up to three years to master, although Indian generic drugs company Cipla claims it could produce a version of Tamiflu by early 2006.

The jury is obviously still out on who is winning the race to beat avian flu, but in terms of reputation, GSK just came up on Roche in the inside lane.


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