Franz Humer: Making a mint out of bird flu... The man with the miracle cures

Interview: Chairman and chief executive of Roche
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"Apologies, but I have not brought any free Tamiflu with me." Franz Humer, the chairman and chief executive of Roche, the maker of the bird flu treatment, is opening the Swiss company's new UK headquarters in Welwyn Garden City, and can manage a little joke, despite the controversy that is swirling all around.

The panic over a potential flu pandemic has propelled Roche into the headlines and into the sights of law makers around the world, many of whom have been agitating for the company to be stripped of its patents on Tamiflu. Roche is struggling to cope with demand for stockpiles of the drug and should cede manufacturing rights to others who can make up the difference, they say.

Not so, says Dr Humer, who has stuck, in that calm and quiet manner of his, to his mantra throughout - "Patents on Tamiflu will not stand in the way of supplies of the drug". It looks like he might just be turning the tide of the argument. The massive increase in in-house manufacturing capacity, tenfold on last year to 300 million treatments by the end of 2006, has silenced some critics, as has a promise to talk to potential licensees. So too has a pledge to slash prices if there really is a pandemic.

"Yes, we have an obligation to be profitable for our shareholders, yes, we have an obligation to invest our money wisely, but patients' needs remain our top priority," Dr Humer says.

All bets will be off if a pandemic happens this winter, before Roche has filled a backlog of orders, but for now, Dr Humer appears to be riding his luck. Governments around the world had been reluctant to allow prescriptions of Tamiflu for ordinary influenza, saying it was not cost-effective, and Roche had stopped putting a significant marketing budget behind the drug.

Now, its ability to mitigate symptoms of the current strain of bird flu has turned it into a must-have and Roche hardly need advertise it.

Which is just as well, because as we tour the new corporate headquarters on Shire industrial park - fanning out from a central "street" where employees from different divisions can meet and brainstorm - it becomes apparent that anything bearing the names of the company's drugs has been taken down. Officials scurried round the night before, removing posters and logos, even marketing literature that might have been lying around. Members of the public have been invited on the tour, you see, members of patient groups and civil servants, for whom the flash of a Tamiflu or Herceptin logo would be deemed to breach a ban on consumer advertising.

Dr Humer professes himself impressed by the mini-gym in a corner of the building ("Wow," he says) but he spends more time lingering over the electronic massage chairs. Later, he is denying himself as the visitors gather for lunch. "Normally, I will just have a glass of water and a salad," he says. "If I go crazy, I will put a grilled fish on top of it. I like my evening dinner, though, when I can relax. If I had lunch as well, I would take up two seats on the plane."

Inevitably, with operations and associated businesses around the world, Dr Humer is on a plane a lot. An Austrian by birth, who has also taken Swiss nationality, he calls the UK his second home. "I try to spend one weekend here a month. I was at Glaxo for over 10 years and I probably have more friends here than in Switzerland."

There was much praise at the opening ceremony for the UK's strong science base and the respect accorded to drug trials conducted here, but Dr Humer is also critical of the slow take-up of new medicines. "UK physicians take a really conservative approach to practising medicine," he says, but he is also heartened by developments over Herceptin, Roche's new breast cancer drug, which has been hailed as one of the most significant breakthroughs in the treatment of the disease. It is available on prescription already for women in the late stages of the disease, but it is its potential to dramatically increase survival rates if used in the early stages of the disease which has pushed the drug on to the news agenda. It appears to halve the chance of breast cancer returning, but it is not licensed, or "indicated", for early-stage use yet in the UK. Several women - including the former nurse, Barbara Clark - have been demanding that their local health trusts reimburse the costs of the drug.

Patricia Hewitt ruled last month that trusts should not withhold the funding if doctors prescribe Herceptin and Dr Humer expressed delight at the Health Secretary's intervention, which brings the UK into line with some other European countries. "There are authorities like the French that have said they will reimburse based on the clinical trial data, and ahead of official approval of the indication. I think the patient organisations' push is a very positive push for the patient and in the end also for achieving much higher survival rates. The evidence is so strong."

Dr Humer confesses that the development of Herceptin was almost ditched. "Twice I was in discussions where scientists asked, should we really continue? At the beginning they had results in early clinical trials of response rates of 3 or 4 per cent because we didn't know that the drug only worked when there was an over-expression of a gene, something we only found out during the development process."

It is the potential of Herceptin and other cancer drugs developed by Roche's 60 per cent-owned US biotech partner Genentech, not just Tamiflu, which has pushed Roche shares to record levels this year. The pioneering arms-length relationship with Genentech has been immensely productive, more so than the traditional Big Pharma in-house research model, which has produced few comparable breakthroughs in recent years.

Dr Humer says: "Roche is organised in five big research centres around the world, not in one big centre, plus we have Genentech. They operate in their own style, their own culture, they have their own relationships with the scientific community. That starts producing a greater diversity of research and therefore a greater chance of a successful output. And it is not just Genentech-Roche, it is East Coast-West Coast-Japan. That is why we created a new research centre in China, because it is a different way of looking at the same problems.

"Culturally, a company like Roche that has its origin in a small country can do that much more easily than a company that has its origin in the United States, which sees itself at the centre of the world. We have always had to go out, our home market is 2 per cent of sales."

Executives across the industry agree that Roche has a unique culture, one that has been protected by the controlling stake held by the descendants of Franz Hoffman-La Roche, who founded the business in 1896. The family and Dr Humer - one suspects pretty much everyone inside Roche - has resisted the overtures of its fellow Swiss drug maker Novartis, which owns 33 per cent and wants to take it over.

But might the newest generations of the family be willing to sell, Dr Humer? "No, no, no, absolutely not. The family has been with us now as a majority shareholder for over 50 years, so no matter who comes and who goes, the family stays."

Family ties in business for family man

Age: 59.

Salary: 7.03m Swiss francs (£3.1m).

Place of birth: Salzburg, Austria.

Education: Doctorate of law, University of Innsbruck; MBA, Insead.

Career: ICME Consulting, Zurich, 1971-73; Schering Plough, posts in Ecuador, Portugal and the UK, 1973-81; Glaxo, rising to chief operating officer, 1981-95; Roche, head of the pharmaceuticals division, then chief operating officer and, since 1998, chief executive. Is also a non-executive director of Diageo in the UK and a member of the supervisory board of Allianz in Germany.

Personal life: Married, with two grown-up children.