- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 26, 2005

OTTAWA — Officials taking part in a conference of health ministers from around the world on a possible bird-flu pandemic said yesterday that they are considering breaking the patent of an existing vaccine and a drug against a similar virus.

Although the option of producing generic versions of Tamiflu, which is thought to be the best defense against bird flu, was not discussed officially at the Global Pandemic Influenza Readiness forum in the Canadian capital, officials said there is a good chance of resorting to that scenario.

“It’s on the back of everybody’s mind,” one Western official said, noting that Canada had broken the Cipro patent during the anthrax scare in 2001.

The World Trade Organization decided in 2003 to allow governments to override patents during national health crises.

Once a government has determined that Tamiflu — one of only two drugs deemed effective against the H5N1 strain of bird flu — is the best option, it would turn to any existing stockpile it has. In Canada’s case, that is about 35 million pills, officials said.

If that supply is not enough to meet the demand, they explained, the government would ask the Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche, which produces Tamiflu, to increase production. If Roche is not able to keep up with the demand, the government would allow other companies to manufacture the pill.

Roche Canada said this week that it had pulled Tamiflu from the market because its sales had jumped drastically in recent weeks, suspecting it is already being purchased to fight bird flu.

“A suggestion that’s being made by some countries is that there are countries that have the capacity to manufacture the vaccine, that we actually need to assist them with technology transfers,” said Canadian Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh.

“Technology transfers,” he said, was “a euphemism for loosening the patent laws.”

“It may not be resolved here, but there are countries out there that are saying they will defy patent protections, and we couldn’t be judgmental if people are dying,” Mr. Dosanjh said, referring to India, which first made the suggestion.

At the two-day conference, which ended yesterday, several officials called on rich countries to help nations in Southeast Asia, where the deadly H5N1 virus first appeared two years ago. It has now claimed 62 lives.

Indonesia confirmed yesterday that a fourth person had died of bird flu, while China said hundreds of farm geese had died. Cases have been found in poultry in Turkey, Romania, Greece, Croatia and Britain.

In Beijing, the Chinese government said yesterday a bird-flu outbreak has killed 545 chickens and ducks in central China and prompted authorities to destroy 2,487 others. It was China’s third reported bird-flu outbreak in a week.

“The simple fact is that many impoverished families and farmers may consider it too risky to report sick animals,” Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin told the conference.

“They are the source of their food as well as their livelihood, so it’s often customary to kill animals that get sick, to be eaten or sold,” he said.

Some officials warned that obsession with Tamiflu must not overshadow efforts to prevent the H5N1 strain from mutating into a human strain.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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