Taiwan's pharmaceutical industry is set to come under the international spotlight after the island's health authorities said they would call for bidders to make Tamiflu as early as next week, with the manufacturers to be chosen by the end of next month. A committee of Taiwan's Intellectual Property Office last week granted health authorities a compulsory licence, giving the Department of Health the legal right to bypass patent protection for Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche and produce the anti-viral drug. Roche responded last week by committing to provide an extra supply to Taiwan to fend off the idea of Taiwanese authorities making it themselves. Tamiflu is the primary drug used to tackle bird flu, but has yet to be made anywhere in the world without the consent of Roche. Fears of a global bird flu pandemic have prompted many countries to consider making the drug. Department of Health spokesman Li Jih-heng told the South China Morning Post that 15 to 16 island companies had been identified by the Bureau of Pharmaceutical Affairs as potential bidders and would be invited to submit tenders to produce the drug. The bidding process will be swift because 'if we postpone to next year, it will be too late', Mr Li said. The winning bidders will be required to produce up to 1.4 million doses of the drug by June next year based on a formula developed by Taiwan's health authorities. It will make Taiwan's nascent pharmaceutical industry the focus of world attention to see if they can actually do it. According to Taiwan's Pharmaceutical Industries Programme Office, the industry's production last year was valued at just US$1.88 billion. By comparison, Roche last month posted third-quarter pharmaceutical sales of 19.4 billion Swiss francs ($113.92 billion). Roche is the sole licensee of the drug, coming under increasing pressure to license production to third parties. However, company officials have said that the process is too complex, citing as an example the use of sodium azide, a compound that is potentially explosive and which Roche farms out to other companies. Taiwanese companies have limited experience in using sodium azide but experts say the problem has been overcome. 'No one in Taiwan has gone through the azide process which is the Roche-approved process but we have developed a non-azide process for making the drug,' pharmaceutical company Scinopharm executive vice-president Hardy Chan said. The non-azide process is the result of reverse-engineering oseltamivir, the generic term for Tamiflu, by Taiwan's National Health Research Institute. Scinopharm is one of two companies used by the government to prove that the laboratory-created Tamiflu could become a mass-production drug, despite using a different formula. 'We took the lab process which the institute developed and did it in the factory,' said Mr Chan. However, no laboratory in the world has achieved the same results in the same timeframe and Roche has claimed that it would take a company two years to start from the beginning but that is using its more volatile sodium azide method. In the end, the companies that do get the contract for mass production are unlikely to see a boost in sales. 'No one's going to make money from this if it's just being nationalised and given away on a cost-plus basis,' said David Silver, the president of pharmaceutical consulting firm Biotech East. But that has not stopped speculators betting on companies such as Taiwan's Yung Shin Pharmaceutical which saw its share price rise more than 30 per cent on news that it was one of two companies tapped by the government to test produce its formula for Tamiflu. Analysts say that having a contract to make Tamiflu is not a licence to print money. 'If the limiting factor is capacity, then whoever has the capacity can make money. But the problem is the availability of raw materials,' said Peter Sutton, the head of research at CLSA. The price of star anise fruit, found in Southern China, has risen 10-fold since it was found to be the source of the shikimic acid used in Tamiflu and was subsequently stockpiled by speculators and producers. But scientists at Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institute scored an apparent coup last week when they announced their ability to cultivate the acid from three other plants found in Taiwan, albeit at lower yields, and have lodged patent applications to cover their findings.