Marketplace Report: Tamiflu and Roche's Market Value

Reports suggesting that the drug Tamiflu may not provide relief from avian flu have dragged down the stock price of drugmaker Roche Pharmaceuticals. Stephen Beard of Marketplace discusses the development with Madeleine Brand.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Shares in the Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche dipped on European markets today. Investors sold the stock because of doubts about the company's antiviral drug Tamiflu. The medicine has been hailed as the only reliable treatment for human cases of bird flu, but evidence from Vietnam has raised questions about the drug's effectiveness. Joining us from the "Marketplace" European desk in London is Stephen Beard.

And, Stephen, what is this evidence from Vietnam?

STEPHEN BEARD reporting:

The evidence has surfaced in The New England Journal of Medicine, and it details the fate of eight patients in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. The eight were suffering from the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus. All were treated with Tamiflu, but four died and two of them showed signs that the virus that killed them was resistant to Tamiflu.

BRAND: Eight. So that's a very small sampling. How much can we deduce from that?

BEARD: Well, that's a fair point, but in fact, all the samples here are small, all the numbers in this story are small. Only 139 people in the world have so far been infected with this disease, and of those, only 71 have died. So at the moment, it's a disease that's very difficult for humans to catch.

But it's fear that's the key, of course. It's the possibility that this could mutate into a virus that's easily transmissible between humans. That's raised fears of a pandemic and focused a lot of attention on this drug, Tamiflu.

BRAND: And what is the manufacturer, Roche, saying?

BEARD: Roche says that it's taking this report from Vietnam seriously, but says that he deaths and the cases of resistance could be due to the Tamiflu dosages and the duration of the treatment. Here's the company's spokeswoman from Basel in Switzerland, Martina Rupp.

Ms. MARTINA RUPP (Spokeswoman, Roche): Don't forget that this virus is extremely virulent, so it's not the same virus as the seasonal flu. And, therefore, it's important to assess if it makes sense to have a higher dosage or if the duration of the treatment should be longer than just five days.

BEARD: She says Roche is collaborating with the World Health Organization on research into whether higher dosages and longer treatments are required.

BRAND: And investors are reacting negatively?

BEARD: Yes, they were a bit rattled today. Roche's shares dropped, not a huge amount, less than 1 percent. It's worth remembering that the stock has boomed in recent months as governments around the world, more than 50 of them, have rushed to order vast quantities of Tamiflu. So obviously, any doubts at all about Tamiflu's effectiveness are obviously going to make investors a little bit nervous.

And coming up later today on "Marketplace," in a complete change of mood, the group of drunken Santas were trying to make a point about Christmas.

BRAND: Well, we'll listen for that.

Stephen Beard of public radio's daily business show "Marketplace." And "Marketplace" is produced by American Public Media.

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