US buys up entire stock of drug to treat Covid-19
The US has bought up almost all stocks for the next three months of one of the two drugs proven to work against Covid-19, leaving none for the UK, Europe or most of the rest of the world.
Experts and campaigners for access to medicines are alarmed both by the US unilateral action on remdesivir and the wider implications, for instance in the event of a vaccine becoming available. The Trump administration has already shown it is prepared to outmanoeuvre all comers to secure medical supplies it needs for Americans. “They’ve got access to most of the drug supply [of remdesivir] so there’s nothing for Europe,” said Dr Andrew Hill, senior visiting research fellow at Liverpool University.
Remdesivir, the first drug approved by US licensing authorities to treat Covid-19, has been shown to help people recover faster from the disease.
The first 140,000 doses, supplied to global drug trials, have been used up. The Trump administration has now bought more than 500,000 doses, which is all of manufacturer Gilead’s production for July and 90% of August and September.
“President Trump has struck an amazing deal to ensure Americans have access to the first authorised therapeutic for Covid-19,” said the US health and human services secretary, Alex Azar. “To the extent possible, we want to ensure that any American patient who needs remdesivir can get it. The Trump administration is doing everything in our power to learn more about life-saving therapeutics for Covid-19 and secure access to these options for the American people.”
The drug, which was invented for Ebola but failed to work, is under patent to US-based Gilead, which means no other firm in wealthy countries can make it. The cost is around $3,200 per treatment of six doses, according to the US government statement.
The deal was announced as it became clear the US pandemic is spiralling out of control. America’s leading public health expert Anthony Fauci told the Senate:“We are going in the wrong direction.”
Last week the US saw a new daily record of 40,000 new cases in one day. “I would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 a day if this does not turn around,” Fauci said. He said the death toll “is going to be very disturbing”.
The US has recorded more than 2.5m confirmed cases of Covid-19, with some states seeing record rises.
Some states lifted restrictions only to have to clamp down again. On Monday, the governor of Arizona ordered bars, cinemas, gyms and water parks to shut down for a month, weeks after reopening. Texas, Florida and California, which have all seen rises in cases, have also reimposed restrictions.
The US has taken an “America first” attitude throughout the global pandemic. In May, French manufacturer Sanofi said that the US would get first access to its Covid vaccine if it works.
Its CEO, Paul Hudson, was quoted as saying: “The US government has the right to the largest pre-order because it’s invested in taking the risk.” Later it backtracked under pressure from the French government.
Remdesivir has been watched eagerly for the last five months, said Hill, yet there was no mechanism to ensure a supply outside of America. “Imagine this was a vaccine,” he said. “That would be a firestorm. But perhaps this is taste of things to come.”
Remdesivir would get people out of hospital more quickly, reducing the burden on the NHS and might improve survival, said Hill, although that has not yet been shown in trials, as it has with the other successful treatment, the steroid dexamethasone. There has been no attempt to buy up stocks of dexamethasone as there is no need – the drug is 60 years-old, very cheap and easily available everywhere.
Hill said the UK could secure supplies of this or other drugs through what is known as a compulsory licence, which overrides intellectual property rights and would allow the UK government to buy from generic firms in Bangladesh or India, where Gilead’s patent is not recognised.
The UK has always upheld patents, backing the argument of pharma firms that they need their 20 year monopoly to recoup the development costs.
Other countries have shown an interest in such a step. “It is a question of what countries are prepared to do if this becomes a problem," said Hill.
▲ Remdesivir is one of just two drugs proven to work against coronavirus