Roche to Let Businesses Reserve Tamiflu Stockpiles

Swiss drugmaker Roche is offering businesses a new deal to help protect their employees in the event of a pandemic flu outbreak.

The company, which makes the prescription antiviral medicine Tamiflu, announced today that corporations can now reserve an emergency stockpile of the flu-fighter for a "nominal annual fee."

The contract, which would be renewed each year, allows companies to buy a full shipment of Tamiflu at the prevailing wholesale price. Roche says it will guarantee the medicine will be sent within 48 hours "in most cases".

The program is in response to feedback from corporate executives who apparently told Roche they didn't want to buy big lots now when fears of a bird flu outbreak have subsided. A Roche executive says the flexibility of the new offer could be a "tipping point" for some companies.

But it could also be an attempt to reinvigorate sales of Tamiflu, which fell sharply last year after a spike driven by worldwide government stockpiling of the drug.

Foster City, Calif.-basedGilead Sciences, which invented Tamiflu, gets a royalty on sales from Roche. Shares of Gilead were down about 2 percent Thursday on the Nasdaq.

Earlier this month the federal government issued new pandemic flu guidelines urging the private sector to stockpile antivirals. The government stash would cover only a quarter of the population.