US buys up en­tire stock of drug to treat Covid-19

The Guardian - - Front Page - Sarah Bose­ley Health editor

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

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