Indian drug makers gear up to combat bird flu

Indian pharma firms, known globally for their capacity to produce cheap generic drugs, are bracing up to combat bird flu.

india Updated: Feb 22, 2006 11:51 IST

Indian pharmaceutical firms, known globally for their capacity to produce cheap generic or unpatented drugs, are bracing to supply bird flu medicines.

Leading companies like Cipla and Ranbaxy Laboratories say they are fully prepared to manufacture oseltamivir, the generic version of Roche Holding's influenza drug Tamiflu, to check against the spread of the deadly virus.

India's first confirmed case of the H5N1 strain of avian influenza was reported Saturday from the Navapur village of the Nandurbar district, some 300 km from here, after tests were conducted on thousands of dead chicken.

Authorities say they have not come across any case of human avian influenza so far. Over 100 blood samples are being tested in laboratories to detect the presence of H5N1 strain of bird flu.

Hyderabad-based Hetero Drugs said it had delivered 500,000 capsules of Tamiflu to the Indian government for distribution in various states for combating bird flu. Another consignment of 200,000 capsules was delivered Wednesday.

Roche Holding, which has the worldwide patent for Tamiflu, entered into a licensing agreement with Hetero Drugs for manufacturing and distributing the medicine in the Indian market in December last year.

"We have another one million capsules in the stock and this can be called in by the government at a very short notice," Hetero Drugs' marketing director M Srinivas Reddy said over the telephone from Hyderabad.

"We are very well prepared for any eventuality. Our production capacity can be ramped up to 30 million capsules per month in case there is a need in the market," he added.

Hetero Drugs is selling a pack of 10 Tamiflu capsules for Rs 710, which is cheaper than the prices in the overseas market.

Reddy welcomed the government's decision to prohibit the sale of the medicine by pharmaceutical companies directly in the retail market. "The product is toxic and makes people drug-resistant very quickly.

"If it is made available in the market, people will tend to misuse and then it will be a disaster."

Cipla, India's leading generic drug maker, Wednesday launched its own version of Tamiflu in the local market that would be made available through hospitals in the flu-affected states.

Initially, Mumbai-headquartered Cipla would produce one million capsules per week, said company chairman Yusuf Hamied, adding the producing capacity could be enhanced in four to five weeks' time in the event of an outbreak.

Cipla, which manufactures and markets a wide range of medicines in India and 150 other countries worldwide, will sell a pack of 10 capsules for Rs.650 in the wholesale market.

"There is a great demand for this product all over the world but our first priority is India. We have received all the permissions to launch it," said Hamied. The company has invested $10 million to manufacture oseltamivir.

Ranbaxy Laboratories, one of India's largest drug makers, said the active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) for the production of its version of the anti-flu drug was ready.

"In terms of commercialisation, we are working on the timeline to launch the product in the Indian market," said a company spokesperson.

Experts said since Roche Holding had not been granted a product patent on Tamiflu in India yet, local companies could manufacture the medicine without seeking a licence from the Swiss drug maker to contain the bird flu outbreak.

Known to spread to human beings, the H5N1 strain of bird flu has resulted in nearly 100 human casualties across Southeast Asia, mostly in Vietnam.

First Published: Feb 22, 2006 11:30 IST