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Tamiflu component extracted from local plants, scientists say

2005-11-22 / Taiwan News, STAFF REPORTER / By Jenny W. Hsu

Taiwan is one step closer to producing a local version of Tamiflu as the Industrial Technology Research Institute announced yesterday that Taiwan is now abile to extract shikimic acid, the chief component of the drug, from three indigenous Taiwanese plants.
Currently, countries that are interested in making their own antiviral treatment rely on China to supply them with star anise, the main source of shikimic acid. Earlier this month, Taiwan received its first 3-ton batch of the raw material purchased from China.

President Lee John-see, president of IRTI said contrary to popular belief, star anise is not the only source for shikimic acid. There are at least 20 types of plants that contain the necessary ingredient, said Lee. Due to patent limitations, Lee refused to disclose the names of the three plants.

Lee said although it's costlier to extract acid from the three indigenous plants than from star anise, the discovery eliminates the worry of a star anise shortage or price inflation in the future.

Lai also confirmed that scientists are able to extract sialic acid, the integral ingredient for Relenza, another anti-viral medicine for influenza. However, most health experts do not prefer Relenza because it is an inhaler, which can be inconvenient for the users.

While scientists place their focus on Tamiflu development, the government is continuing its negotiations with Roche Holding AG on the possibility of obtaining authorization to make the drug locally without invoking the compulsory licensing clause under the patent laws of Taiwan and World Trade Organization charters.

Gilead Sciences, the inventor and developer of Tamiflu, has agreed to allow Taiwanese pharmaceutical companies to make the drug. However, Roche, the Switzerland based drug giant who purchased the right to sell Tamiflu from Gilead, is still pending to release a sublicense for Taiwan to mass-produce and distribute Tamiflu in the country.

Back in mid-October, Department of Health Minister Hou Sheng-mou (侯勝茂) wrote a letter to Roche requesting the drug company to release patent right on Tamiflu and allow Taiwan to begin making a local form of the drug. Roche responded immediately by saying the company was willing to review the request and promised to contact DOH for specific technical capability information.

However, after a waiting period, the Taiwanese government had not received any additional official statements or further inquiries from Roche. In the face of a possible pandemic, DOH filed for compulsory license with the Intellectual Property Office (智財局) on October 31.

Presently, Roche argues that the application for compulsory license filed by DOH was unnecessary and that the company has already expressed a willingness to establish consensus with DOH on the prospect of Tamiflu authorization.

C.C. Tsai, spokesperson for Roche Taiwan expressed that his company has been holding talks with three local pharmaceutical companies. One of the companies, ScinoPharm has sent representatives to Roche headquarter in Switzerland for further discussions.

To date, avian flu has killed 67 people with new outbreaks recently reportedly in various parts of China. Oseltamivir, the active ingredient in Tamiflu is considered as the most effective treatment against the virus strand so far.