Big pharma searches for COVID-19 treatment
The European Union is in talks with Gilead Sciences Inc. about reserving a “sufficient number of doses” of remdesivir for the bloc’s member states after the U.S forged a deal to snap up almost all the drugmaker’s supplies.
Discussions are ongoing, a European Commission spokesman told reporters Thursday. Remdesivir is one of only two medicines with a proven effect against the coronavirus, and the EU expects to clear it as a COVID-19 treatment by the end of this week.
The U.S. agreement announced earlier this week fueled worries about countries locking up access to drugs, vaccines and other pandemic essentials to place themselves in the best possible position to fight the virus -- potentially leaving others in the lurch.
“This has definitely sent shivers through the EU,” said Thomas Senderovitz, director-general of the Danish Medicines Agency. “It will be discussed how to avoid a situation like this going forward.”
Countries including Britain, Germany and Switzerland sought to allay concerns that they won’t have sufficient stocks of the medicine.
The U.K. worked with Gilead in May to secure remdesivir in advance and has enough of the medicine to treat every National Health Service patient who needs it, officials said in an email response to questions Wednesday. Switzerland has supplies of the drug set aside for seriously ill patients, according to a government spokesman.
The U.S. infectious-disease expert Anthony Fauci, asked on BBC radio about his country’s agreement with Gilead, said the goal for any needed drug should be “trying to get some reasonable equitable type of distribution, particularly when you have a product that’s limited.”
An earlier move by the Trump administration to buy hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug that the U.S. president touted as a coronavirus cure, left patients who rely on it for chronic diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis struggling to obtain it. Concerns about the U.S. elbowing its way to the front of the vaccine line arose in May when Sanofi Chief Executive Officer Paul Hudson said that its shots might be available there first because one of the country’s agencies helped fund development.
Sanofi said later that its vaccine would be available to everyone. Groups including Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the World Health Organization and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations are working to ensure that vaccines are available worldwide.
The U.S. secured “an amazing deal” for Gilead’s entire projected production of the medicine for July, as well as 90 per cent of the output for August and September, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Monday.
Gilead plans to charge US$390 a vial, or US$2,340 for a five-day regimen, for direct government purchases by the U.S. or other developed countries. A one-price model would avoid the need for negotiations that could slow down access, the company said.
It’s still unclear how much the U.S. move will hamper other nations in their bid to gain the medicine. The Netherlands has adequate supplies of remdesivir that were donated by Gilead, according to the healthy ministry. A spokesman for Germany’s health minister told Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland that the country has adequate supplies.
Gilead has donated its supplies through June, and said it has agreements with manufacturers of generics, which will allow access for developing nations and boost the amounts available worldwide.
“We are seeing the reason why so many have said that COVID-19-related health goods should be considered public and as such, be protected from hoarding, profiteering and other practices that hinder access,” said Jaume Vidal, senior policy adviser at Health Action International, a nonprofit in the Netherlands. “COVID-19 cannot be successfully vanquished without a moral compass that puts the needs of the most above the profit of the few.”
Gilead’s remdesivir is one of the first widely used drugs for COVID-19 after a large clinical trial found the medicine sped recovery by about four days in hospitalized patients. Later, University of Oxford researchers said that a large study showed that dexamethasone, a cheap generic anti-inflammatory, improves survival in severely ill patients.
Hundreds more treatments and vaccines are in development around the globe as researchers race to find ways to halt a global pandemic that’s infected more than 10 million people, killing more than 500,000.
Gilead’s supply deal puts other high-income countries like the U.K. in an “impossible situation” where they’ll be unable to get it from the U.S. or import it from other countries like India, said Andrew Hill, a senior research fellow at the University of Liverpool. Gilead has an obligation to make the drug available to European countries where people took on the risk of participating in human trials without knowing whether the medicine would work, he said.
“Countries in Europe have made a contribution to this research, and they’re getting nothing in return,” he said. “You can’t use a continent as an experimental base and then not provide treatment afterward.” There’s no way to verify whether countries will have enough, according to Hill.
Generic production will take time and won’t be able to meet global demand, according to Jessica Burry, a pharmacist at the Access Campaign of Medecins Sans Frontieres, a global health relief group. International rules also need to be established for the equitable allocation of medicines, vaccines, tests and protective equipment, she said.
“Otherwise we will continue to see similar behavior,” she said.
--With assistance from Corinne Gretler, Morten Buttler, Marthe Fourcade, Ellen Proper and Aoife White.