Anger broke out today when the United States decided to buy up almost all of the global range of remdesivir – one of only two drugs approved to treat Covid-19 in the NHS.
A leading researcher at Oxford University, who was involved in studies with the drug that was originally developed to treat Ebola but shortened the recovery time for patients infected with coronavirus, called for fairer access to the drug.
Professor Peter Horby, chairman of the Nervtag government advisory council, said Gilead Sciences – the California-based manufacturer of remdesivir – had been "under local political pressure" as a US company.
He told BBC Radio 4's Today show that fair prices and access to medication that has been shown to fight the coronavirus are two key problems in the pandemic.
Professor Horby said: “The study, which found that remdesivir was able to sell its drug, was not only conducted in the US, but patients in other European countries, including the UK and internationally, Mexico and other locations, participated .
"And I wonder how you would feel if you now knew that the availability of the drug would be limited in your own country, and would you have volunteered to try if you knew?"
It was announced last night that the government of US President Donald Trump bought more than 500,000 cans of remdesivir. This makes up the entire global supply for July and 90 percent of the inventory for August and September.
This means that there are patients in the UK and Europe There is unlikely to be wide access to it by fall.
The United States has purchased almost the entire global range of remdesivir (photo), one of only two drugs that have been shown to be effective against coronavirus
According to the U.S. government, a six-dose course of the drug costs around £ 2,580 ($ 3,200).
Health minister Matt Hancock called Remdesivir the "biggest step forward" in treating Covid-19 since the outbreak broke out last month.
The only other drug that has been shown to be effective against Covid-19 is the anti-inflammatory steroid dexamethasone.
This means that the key drug for critically ill patients across Europe is unlikely to be available until October, raising concerns about coronavirus patients in the UK (Image: Gilead Sciences in California).
Dexamethasone, a £ 5 steroid that has been around for decades, was the first drug that has been shown to lower the mortality rate in hospital patients who need oxygen.
Alex Azar, the United States Secretary of Health, said: “We want to ensure as much as possible 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 to give the American people access to these options."
WHAT IS REMDESIVIR AND DO IT WORK AGAINST COVID-19?
Remdesivir was developed by Gilead Sciences to treat Ebola, the fatal hemorrhagic fever that occurred in West Africa in 2014.
Ebola is caused by a virus like Covid-19, and scientists have tested remdesivir to treat coronavirus patients.
Studies showed encouraging results earlier this year when they were promising for the prevention and treatment of MERS – another coronavirus – in macaque monkeys.
Human studies have led to mixed results.
In a study conducted by the US government, remdesivir reduced recovery time by 31 percent – an average of 11 days compared to 15 days in patients receiving only the usual care.
However, according to preliminary results after two weeks of follow-up, survival had not improved. Results after four weeks are expected soon.
The drug appears to help stop replication of viruses such as coronavirus and Ebola alike.
It is not entirely clear how the drug accomplishes this feat, but it seems to prevent the virus' genetic material, RNA, from copying itself.
This in turn prevents the virus from multiplying in the patient's body.
Remdesivir is patented for Gilead, which means that no other developed country is able to do this.
Evidence about remdesivir is mixed, but scientific studies have shown that it helps the most seriously ill who need ventilation.
The UK has received Remdesivir free of charge because of a Gilead deal to donate 1.5 million vials worldwide. However, this scheme has come to an end.
Gilead CEO Daniel O & # 39; Day revealed in an open letter this week a pricing structure for the drug.
Mr O & # 39; Day wrote that the company set the price for the industrialized countries "to ensure broad and equitable access in times of urgent global need."
It wasn't announced which countries this would apply to – and the $ 390 price would apply to Americans covered by state health care.
For U.S. private insurance companies, the cost is $ 520 (£ 420) per vial, or a total of $ 3,120 (£ 2,540) per patient.
The health minister announced the approval of the drug at a press conference in Downing Street in May, saying: “This is probably the greatest advance in the treatment of coronaviruses since the crisis began.
& # 39; These are early steps, but we are determined to support science and support the projects that are promising. As you understand, we will prioritize the use of this treatment where it can bring the greatest benefit. & # 39;
The US government has come under fire for its tactics in the global coronavirus treatment market.
It has shown willingness to outbid other countries and keep supplies to themselves instead of working with them.
French pharmaceutical company Sanofi announced in May that the US would receive its coronavirus vaccine first if it worked, but later changed its mind under pressure from the French government.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned: "We know that it is in our interest to work together and cooperatively for the security of our citizens."
Another option for the UK government would be to use a "compulsory license", which is a legal instrument that can be used to ignore Gilead's patents for the drug.
Generic versions of the drug could be purchased from countries like India that don't recognize the patent.
However, the UK does not like to do so as it would irritate the domestic pharmaceutical industry, which claims that 20 years of copyrights are required to regain the money invested in developing new treatments.
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