The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Delhi targets flu drug stockpile

New Delhi, Oct. 26: The health ministry has said it wants to stockpile one million doses of the anti-influenza drug oseltamivir, but officials appeared unclear about legal mechanisms and the source of raw material for local production of the drug.

Health minister Anbumani Ramadoss, who chaired a meeting with top health officials, said the government has launched a preparedness plan that would include surveillance of poultry and wild birds and stockpiling oseltamivir.

“We’d like 10 lakh doses to begin with,” Ramadoss said, adding that the government has initiated discussions with the Switzerland-based multinational drug giant Roche. Health ministry officials said the government was also examining the legal mechanisms through which oseltamivir could be produced by local manufacturers.

A product patent for oseltamivir is currently pending in India’s patents office, independent sources told The Telegraph. The US-based Gilead Life Sciences had originally discovered oseltamivir and licensed it to Roche for marketing.

Independent drug experts said a key hurdle to the production of oseltamivir is the availability of its primary raw material ' shikimic acid, a compound extracted from the plant called star anise, a spice used in Chinese cuisine. While star anise is cultivated in China, specialists in pharmaceutical sciences said nearly 90 per cent of the harvest is used up by Roche to make oseltamivir.

With several countries already having stockpiled oseltamivir and the demand still growing, experts anticipate a shortage of the raw material.

“Indian companies may or may not have the expertise to produce oseltamivir, but where are they going to get shikimic acid'” asked Chandra Gulhati, editor of the Monthly Index of Medical Specialities, India.

Health officials said the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and the Indian Council of Medical Research have been asked to determine whether the plant is available in India.

Ramadoss said the preparedness plan would include equipping hospitals in district headquarters with ventilators, maintaining district-level surveillance and keeping medical staff aware of the steps they need to take should they encounter a case of avian influenza.

The high-security Animal Diseases Laboratory in Bhopal has tested thousands of blood and faeces samples from poultry and wild birds over the past several months. There is no sign of the lethal H5N1 avian influenza virus yet, officials said.

The H5N1 virus does not spread easily from birds to humans, and there is no evidence yet of efficient human-to-human transmission of this virus.

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