Roche, Glaxo ramping up on flu meds

Public health emergency. Pandemic potential. Emergency WHO meeting. The phrases thrown around over the weekend and into this morning may be worrisome for John Q. Public, but they're fighting words for some drugmakers. Roche and GlaxoSmithKline, et al, are gearing up for a possible swine flu pandemic. Let's see how.

First off, Roche is gearing up to turn out more Tamiflu doses. Ironically, the Swiss drugmaker had only recently scaled down production of the antiviral because demand had been waning on news that this year's dominant seasonal flu was resistant. So far, the H1N1 strain that's the culprit in the Mexico-centered outbreak has proven susceptible to Tamiflu. Roche has pledged its help, with a bit of a "so there!" and "we told you so." A spokeswoman told Reuters that scaling up will take time: "We've always made it clear that this cannot happen overnight, which is why it is so important that countries are prepared before the pandemic breaks out."

Meanwhile, Glaxo and its antiflu med Relenza are on the pandemic front lines, too, looking to accelerate its production. In fact, as Tamiflu sales had declined, Relenza was picking up slack, outpacing the Roche drug in stockpile sales for the first quarter of this year. Look for governments and stockpiling companies to step up that stockpiling even if a major pandemic doesn't break out--and expect Relenza to benefit as they attempt to "balance" their stores by beefing up on the GSK med more so than on Tamiflu. Relenza's biggest drawback: Its administration as an inhaled drug; experts say it's just not as easy to deal with as pills are.

Since the outbreak began, Glaxo has supplied 100,000 packs of Relenza and 170,000 additional doses of seasonal flu vaccine to Mexico, the company said in a statement. Roche says it has 3 million Tamiflu doses ready to go at the WHO's command. And both companies are in close communication with the health organization as the flu picture evolves.

Meanwhile, Glaxo and Novartis have announced that they're just waiting for a virus sample to start working on a swine flu vaccine. Plenty of other vaccine makers are likely to get in on that act, too. We'll keep you posted.

- check out the statement from Glaxo
- read the Dow Jones piece on Novartis
- see the Reuters news
- get more from MarketWatch
- read the Bloomberg story