Case Number: 5-107-010, Year Published: 2007
HBS Number: KEL349
Nonmarket Framework, Crisis Management, Pandemic, Avian Flu
The spread of bird flu outside of Asia, particularly in Africa and Europe, topped headlines in 2006. The migration of wild birds brought the virus to Europe, where for the first time it spread to productive livestock, bringing it closer to the Western world. Due to today’s globalized and highly interconnected world, the consequences of a potential bird flu pandemic are expected to be much more severe than those of the Spanish flu, which killed 50–100 million people between 1918 and 1921. A vaccine for the bird virus is currently not available. As of July 2006, 232 cases of human infection had been documented, mostly through direct contact with poultry. Of those, 134 people died. The best medication available to treat bird flu was Roche’s antiviral drug Tamiflu®. However, Tamiflu was not widely available; current orders of government bodies would not be fulfilled until the end of 2008. Well aware that today’s avian flu might become a global pandemic comparable to the Spanish flu, Roche CEO Franz Humer had to decide how Roche should respond. While the pharmaceutical industry continued its research efforts on vaccines and medications, Tamiflu could play an important role by protecting healthcare workers and helping to contain the virus—or at least slow down its spread. Due to patent protection and a complicated production process with scarce raw ingredients, Roche had been the only producer of the drug. Partly in response to U.S. political pressure, in November 2005 Roche allowed Gilead to produce Tamiflu as well. Even so, it would take at least until late 2007 for Roche and Gilead to meet the orders of governments worldwide. The issue was a difficult one for Roche: What were the risks; what were the opportunities? If a pandemic occurred before sufficient stockpiles of Tamiflu had been built up, would Roche be held responsible? What steps, if any, should Roche take with respect to patent protection and production licensing in the shadow of a potential pandemic?
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