Roche says closed Chinese cities hinder virus diagnostics test deliveries

BASEL (Reuters) - Swiss drugmaker Roche ROG.S is struggling to deliver diagnostic tests for the coronavirus to large Chinese cities after Communist Party rulers halted people from entering and leaving in a bid to halt the spreading outbreak.

The logo of Swiss drugmaker Roche is seen at its headquarters in Basel, Switzerland January 30, 2020. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

“Getting the goods to hospitals has been a real challenge,” Roche diagnostics boss Thomas Schinecker told reporters on Thursday.

Chief Executive Severin Schwan said Roche was the first company to supply tests to diagnose the virus, thought to have originated in a food market in the city of Wuhan with about 11 million people, and has now seen thousands of cases and at least 170 deaths in China.

The Swiss drugmaker was able to call on some of its experience in helping identify the SARS virus, a previous outbreak that originated in China, two decades ago.

Roche does not anticipate rising business from its coronavirus tests, as they had to be delivered quickly, making any negotiations over price impossible. To start, Schwan said, the company just gave the tests away for free.

“You can forget this as a business opportunity,” he said, adding that the company had been able to build up its goodwill with public health authorities.

Roche, the biggest maker of cancer drugs, is also the largest manufacturer of diagnostic equipment for identifying diseases.

Roche does have anti-viral drugs, including its flu medicine Xofluza, approved in 2018. But the company’s main pharmaceuticals division head, Bill Anderson, said that medicine is specifically designed to combat the spread of seasonal flu, and is unlikely to have an impact on the coronavirus.

For that, drugs that are effective against HIV or AIDS may offer some opportunity, he said. Gilead Sciences GILD.O is also reviewing its experimental Ebola drug for potential use against the coronavirus.

Countries began isolating hundreds of citizens evacuated from Wuhan on Thursday to stop the spread of an epidemic as worry about the impact on the world’s second-biggest economy rattled markets.

India became the latest country to report a case - a student of Wuhan University - while anger and fear brought protests in South Korea and threats of strikes in Hong Kong.

Writing by John Miller; editing by Nick Macfie