January 18, 2010

Cheaper Tamiflu

In what is clearly a win for the battle against swine flu, costs of the H1N1 vaccine look set to fall yet again, with scientists having developed an alternative method to produce the active ingredient in Tamiflu®. The growing demand for oseltamivir has apparently led to increased pressure on the supply of shikimic acid, the raw material currently utilised to manufacture the drug. However, the new process, published recently in the American Chemical Society's Organic Letters journal, and available for viewing here, describes a process for manufacture involving D-ribose, a naturally-occurring sugar produced by fermentation, which costs only 1/6th as much as shikimic acid.

The current cost of the drug is pegged at about $8, though these prices are more reflective of those versions manufactured by Gilead. Cipla’s version of the vaccine sells for about Rs. 50 ($1) per capsule. However, with the discovery of this new process, prices are hopefully set to fall even lower, making the drug available to a broader spectrum of the population.

Here’s an interesting question: If these scientists had chosen to patent instead of publish, what difference would it have made to the price of the drug?

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