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South Korea investigates Roche and Novartis

Tamiflu sales have rocketed since the outbreak of swine flu but could this backfire on Roche in South Korea?

Authorities in South Korea have raided the Seoul office of Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche for alleged involvement in illegal sales of its swine flu drug Tamiflu.

Swiss rival Novartis was also involved in the investigation by the Korea Food and Drug Administration (FDA) into pandemic stockpiling activities by corporations.

Roche, based in Basel, confirmed that its South Korean affiliate had been "visited" by the FDA. A group spokeswoman said Roche was cooperating fully with the authorities and was committed to supporting pandemic stockpiling activities in South Korea.

"The South Korean government has recently cited pandemic stockpiling by a large number of companies. It is looking into this matter to check conformity with local regulations," Martina Rupp told swissinfo.ch on Friday.

She added that anyone who needed the drug had to have a prescription.

The raid was part of an FDA investigation into large purchases by hospitals and companies that found the Korean units of Swiss pharmaceutical group Novartis and the banking group HSBC had stocked up on the drug, said an FDA spokesman, Ahn Man Ho.

Roche is suspected of helping multinational companies including HSBC and Novartis buy large stocks of Tamiflu in South Korea, Ahn said.

Red alert

"Novartis is collaborating with the local authorities. We cannot comment further on ongoing investigations," Novartis spokesman Eric Althoff told swissinfo.ch.

Concern over a surge in the number of swine flu, or H1N1, cases prompted South Korea's government this week to raise its national alert to the highest "red" level and implement measures such as increasing resources to hospitals.

South Korea also plans to have sufficient supplies of Tamiflu and other antiviral medicines to treat 11 million people, or 20 per cent of its population, by the end of this year, the health ministry said on November 3.

"Roche has provided significant quantities of Tamiflu to the South Korean government, with additional supplies forthcoming. Roche is fully supporting South Korea and the people of South Korea in their pandemic preparations," Rupp said.

Illegal distribution?

An editorial in the Korea Herald newspaper claimed that 23 companies, as well as hospitals, clinics and pharmacies were caught illegally distributing Tamiflu.

It added that the FDA's investigation into 3,853 hospitals, clinics and pharmacies that handled large volumes of Tamiflu between May and October found that enough Tamiflu to treat 7,287 people had been illegally distributed.

More than 80 per cent of the illegally distributed Tamiflu had gone to HSBC Korea and Novartis Korea.

The Bloomberg news agency noted that legislation in South Korea prohibited large-scale drug purchases by non-medical professionals, a crime punishable by up to five years in prison, the FDA said on November 4.

The FDA has asked the South Korean prosecutors to start a criminal probe into the local businesses of HSBC and Novartis, according to Ahn.

swissinfo.ch and agencies

Protection

Avoid close contact with people who appear unwell and who have fever and cough.

Wash your hands with soap and water frequently and thoroughly.

Practise good health habits including adequate sleep, eating nutritious food and keeping physically active.

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Swine flu

The Swiss Federal Health Office has projected that up to two million Swiss could catch swine flu. Some 400,000 people could consult their doctor over suspected swine flu. Some 1,000 people could be hospitalized and of these 150 people would need intensive care treatment, it said.

Adults and children who are severely ill with H1N1 flu or at high risk of complications should be treated with antivirals like Tamiflu, the World Health Organization (WHO) said. But otherwise healthy people with mild flu-like symptoms need not be given the drugs to combat swine flu.

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