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Generic drugs sought as virus spreads

PRESSURE increased for massive production of generic versions of expensive antiviral drugs as the worldwide toll of deaths linked to swine flu rose to 61.

The swine flu epidemic is continuing to spread around the globe, with international health authorities reporting more than 4,700 confirmed cases in 30 nations. Among the deaths, 56 are in Mexico, three in the US, one in Canada and one in Costa Rica.

Antivirals such as Tamiflu are believed to be effective against swine flu if administered early, and cheap generics can easily be made in countries like India.

Many rich nations sit on stockpiles of expensive Tamiflu bought from Swiss drugmaker, Roche.

But poor countries generally have only enough Tamiflu to treat a tiny fraction of their populations.

Some experts called yesterday for massive production of generic Tamiflu, which is patent protected and sells for up to US$100 a course. World Trade Organization rules allow poor countries to override such rights in a health crisis, but generic drug makers are waiting for the World Health Organization to order production.

Instead, WHO says it will secure supplies through donations or discount purchases for developing countries. Critics say that reflects a reluctance to anger leading drug companies, which have long fought to keep generics out of the market in all circumstances.

WHO has a stockpile of about 5 million Tamiflu doses donated by Roche, and earlier this week, the agency began sending 2.4 million treatments to 72 poor countries.

But such numbers pale in comparison to millions of people in the developing world who would be vulnerable in a pandemic.

Indian pharmaceuticals giant Cipla announced yesterday that it could quickly produce millions of treatments at about US$12 per course as soon as WHO places orders.

"We could make a lot more, but there needs to be firm commitment from countries and international agencies like WHO," said Yusuf Hamied, the company's chairman. "The ball is in their court."


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