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Commentary

Roche Feels the Highs and Lows of Feverish Demand for Tamiflu
Alan Murray, Wall Street Journal, 10-19-05

Murray points out that politics and medicine don’t mix well, especially during a (real or perceived) crisis. Roche, for instance, has come under enormous pressure to license-out its anti-flu drug Tamiflu to help countries stockpile their medicine in the event that avian flu becomes a deadly global pandemic. Some governments and policymakers have already threatened to break the Tamiflu’s patent, while some generic companies are already moving to copy the drug.

Talk of a global flu pandemic has rocketed [Roche’s] once-sleepy drug Tamiflu into a place on every survivalist's medicine shelf, right alongside Cipro (anthrax) and potassium iodide (radiation poisoning). …
But it's the curse of pharmaceutical companies these days that whenever they stumble across a product that saves lives, they also stumble into a hornet's nest of global anger and opposition…
You would think pharmaceutical companies might have learned from the experiences of the past two decades. They mishandled the global outroar over AIDS drugs, suing Nelson Mandela's government, among other things, in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to protect their patents. And Bayer AG badly bungled the 2001 anthrax crisis. It refused to disclose how much Cipro it had on hand, prompting a Republican secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, to threaten breaking the company's patent rights. …
The real danger here is that these dust-ups discourage companies from spending their valuable research dollars on developing life-saving drugs, and persuade them to focus instead on lifestyle drugs that promise big profits without accompanying demands of instant access for all.
"All of us need to remember we owe these companies our lives," says Billy Tauzin, the former Louisiana congressman hired by the industry to salvage its sagging reputation. "We've got to make it economically feasible for them to continue the research and development they do."

Murray’s article is fairly-even handed, and well worth reading in its entirety. The greatest danger, as he correctly points out, is that if governments make a habit of voiding patents for critical medicines, companies may react by shifting research into drug classes that are less likely to be expropriated. Policymakers and companies need to devise strategies for health emergencies well in advance of actual crises if we all want a steady supply of new drugs to treat emerging pathogens.



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