Roche accused of exploiting virus scare

The virus sparked several days of panic buying of medicines last week Keystone

The Swiss pharmaceutical group, Roche, is at the centre of a row in China over allegations that it capitalised on fears about a deadly virus to boost drug sales.

This content was published on February 17, 2003 - 17:57

Chinese newspapers accused Roche of claiming a mystery virus was chicken flu and that its Tamiflu, or Da Fei, drug was an effective treatment.

The state run news agency said the claim led to a sharp boost in sales of the drug. Roche has refuted the accusations.

The virus has killed five people and left more than 300 ill in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong since November. Chinese authorities say it is a form of pneumonia and has now been brought under control.

The state-run media say that Roche claimed the virus was in fact Chicken flu at a press conference last week, and mentioned that its Tamiflu drug was an effective treatment.

The Southern Metropolis Daily said Roche's claim might contravene Chinese pharmaceutical laws.

It also said that by naming the virus, the company had helped to stir up panic among the public as Internet rumours quickly spread following the conference.

Sales of Tamiflu were boosted to some 105,000 boxes between February 8 and 13, the government news agency Xinhua reported.

An official at the Guangdong Drug Administration office was quoted as saying that the company was being investigated.

Denial

The Basel-based group strongly denies the allegations and says it had not been approached by the Chinese authorities.

"We have not been contacted by the authorities regarding any kind of formal investigation," Roche spokesman Horst Kramer told swissinfo.

He added that Roche had made no claims regarding the effectiveness of the drug in fighting the virus.

"Somebody - not an official Roche person - sent a text message [from a mobile phone] at the end of last week informing the public about the [virus], saying the Roche drug was the only effective drug," Kramer explained.

"This was not an official Roche statement and we're investigating who issued this and why."

The company said it was carrying out an internal investigation in response to the accusations.

In a statement, it said it would take action against "anyone found to have used the company's name to spread rumours and harm its reputation".

Authorities in Guangzhou, Guangdong province's largest city, said they had also punished several shops for hiking the prices of medicine, salt and rice, as the public stockpiled supplies in panic over the virus.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

According to Chinese newspapers, Roche claimed at a press conference on February 9 that its Tamiflu drug was an effective treatment against a mystery virus sweeping southern China.

Sales in the drug soared following the claim, state media said.

Roche denies the accusations and says someone outside the company had sent an text message about the drug.

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