The US government has bought virtually the entire production of the Covid-19 drug Remdesivir for the next three months.
The US health department has announced it will buy 500,000 doses for use in American hospitals. Several critics recalled the exuberance with which President Trump promoted hydroxychloroquine- which eventually proved a dud - and pointed out that Dexamethasone, a cheap steroid that has been around for decades and costs a fraction of remdesivir, is also proven to reduce the death rate among hospitalized patients.
Gilead, which received taxpayer funding to develop the treatment, is pricing the drug at around $753 a vial, and a full treatment course, which lasts on average six vials, will run at over $3,400.
Remdesivir is expected to be in high demand as one of the only treatments shown to alter the course of Covid-19.
Senior Sussex University lecturer, Ohid Yaqub, said: "It so clearly signals an unwillingness to co-operate with other countries and the chilling effect this has on global agreements about intellectual property rights".
Under US law, export of drugs considered essential to treatment of patients in a public health emergency can be banned - and many other countries, including the United Kingdom, have similar legal provisions. "We hope to finalize these arrangements soon", the company said.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesman, James Slack, declined to criticize the United States for the move, but said the UK had a "sufficient stock" of remdesivir for patients who need it, but didn't specify how much that was. That leaves Gilead's licenses with nine generic drug makers - including companies in Egypt and Pakistan - the best hope for patients in the rest of the world to access the drug.
Remdesivir will be produced by Gilead factories in the USA but also by manufacturing partners in North America, Europe and Asia, "to scale up supply", it added. "It's very odd and quite inappropriate", he said. "If a second wave comes, we may be challenged".
Before a vaccine is widely available, the remdesivir deal will leave many countries scrambling for an alternative. The consumer group Public Citizen estimates that at least $70 million in USA public funding went to develop remdesivir.
But a scarcity of remdesivir is probable while Gilead works to ramp up production.
That would allow Australia to manufacture its own doses or import low-priced versions of the drug from other countries.
"The buying-up of remdesivir is disappointing news, not necessarily because of the shortages it implies for other countries, but because it so clearly signals an unwillingness to cooperate with other countries, and the chilling effect this has on worldwide agreements about intellectual property rights", said Ohid Yaqub, senior lecturer at the Science Policy Research Unit of Britain's University of Sussex.
The U.S.is seeing about 40,000 new cases a day now.
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