There are fears Australia is amongst many other countries barred from accessing new Coronavirus treatments after the United States moved to secure near-exclusive access to the antiviral drug remdesivir for the next three months.
The drug developed by Gilead Sciences has emerged as one of the most promising medications in treating COVID-19, although studies are yet to find conclusive evidence it does save lives.
The US Government has secured an arrangement with Gilead Science to receive 100 per cent of all remdesivir drugs produced in July, followed by 90 per cent of production in the subsequent two months.
“President Trump has struck an amazing deal to ensure Americans have access to the first authorized therapeutic for COVID-19,” said US Health 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.”
Gilead ignored calls by 150 civil society organisations, including Medicine Sans Frontiers, to forgo its patents on remdesivir, which means it controls who can produce the drug.
Public health experts fear the three-month deal secured by the US will make it increasingly challenging for other countries to access the treatment as the pandemic worsens.
“It’s quite outrageous that the US government has bought up almost the entire next three months supply of remdesivir,” LaTrobe Public Health lecturer Dr Deborah Gleeson told SBS News.
“It’s a very concerning precedent because if we see the vaccine coming from a US company, we’re likely to see the same type of behavior and hoarding by the US and other developed countries.”
“With a pandemic like COVID-19, the problem won’t be solved until it’s sold for the whole world.”
Dr Gleeson warns Australia risks losing out if it does not act to secure supply of vital medications.
She said the country should be prepared to use public health safeguards to overrule patents on treatments.
The government could also reverse its decision to waive the right to import medicines manufactured in another country under a compulsory license.
That would allow Australia to import low-cost versions of drugs from another country, if it does not have domestic manufacturing capacity to meet demand for vital treatments.
While American patients will enjoy first access to the drug, treatment will be far from cheap.
In the United States, Remdesivir will be priced at $753 a vial, and a full treatment course which lasts on average six vials will run at over $3,400.
Dr Gleeson says those prices are likely far higher than the drug’s actual production costs.
“This is pretty typical of the type of behavior that we see from the US pharmaceutical industry,” she said.
“Gilead has the potential to rake in potentially billions of dollars in profit from this drug,”
Remdesivir received emergency approval from the US Federal Drugs Administration in May for use on residents with severe coronavirus symptoms.
The treatment is also approved for use in Japan and the United Kingdom.
Remdesivir does not have regulatory approval in Australia but has been recommended as a considered treatment for the virus by the National COVID-19 Clinical Evidence Taskforce.
The drug is available in three hospitals in Australia as part of a limited global access program and can be used as part of treatment in clinical trials and on compassionate grounds.
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