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Flu drug maker to build US plant

But pressure rises for Roche to ease its monopoly grip

SAN FRANCISCO -- Roche AG says it will build a US plant to make more of its antibird flu drug Tamiflu, but that promise failed to tamp growing international pressure on the Swiss drug giant to ease its monopoly grip on the drug.

European Union foreign ministers yesterday called bird flu a global threat following the discovery of new cases in Greece, Romania, and Turkey in recent days, which led to bans on poultry from those countries.

Meanwhile, demand for Tamiflu is far outstripping Roche's ability to make it.

Some 40 countries are scrambling to create Tamiflu stockpiles to treat millions if a pandemic occurs, and there's growing international pressure to ignore Roche's patent rights and manufacture inexpensive generic versions.

Thailand has revealed its intentions to do just that, and India-based Cipla Ltd. said it will be ready to ship generics next year, though it said yesterday it will seek a license from Roche.

The World Health Organization recommends governments keep enough antiviral drugs and regular human flu vaccines to inoculate at least 25 percent of their populations.

The demand for Tamiflu is expected to continue its rise after the EU called on all its members yesterday to stockpile the drug.

As migrating wild fowl have spread bird flu from Asia to Europe, fears have intensified that the virus may mutate into one that can be easily transmitted among humans. Global health specialists fear that bird flu, which has swept through poultry across Asia since 2003 and killed at least 63 people, could be the start of a worldwide epidemic.

While current flu vaccines offer no protection against bird flu, lab and animal experiments have shown Tamiflu appears effective against it, and doctors in Asia have already been using the drug to treat infected people.

Roche, the sole manufacturer of Tamiflu, has ruled out relinquishing its exclusive patent rights on the drug to ease the crunch. But for the first time, the company said yesterday it was seeking other companies to help speed its production.

Sales of Tamiflu have skyrocketed from $76 million in 2001 to an estimated $700 million this year.

Roche has declined to discuss how many doses of Tamiflu it can produce and where exactly it manufactures the drug. Roche refused to say where the new US plant would be located, citing security concerns. Nor has it said when new Tamiflu capsules will be produced in the United States.

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