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The United States has bought up virtually all stocks of a drug shown to reduce the recovery time of Covid-19 patients.
The UK is confident is has enough of the drug for now, but it is not clear when its own stockpile will run out.
Remdesivir – an anti-viral drug first developed to tackle Ebola – has been approved for use treating coronavirus in the UK and the US after trials suggested it could cut recovery time by around four days.
But the US said it had secured more than 500,000 courses of the drug, which is produced by US pharmaceutical firm Gilead, for American hospitals.
This represents 100% of Gilead’s projected production of the drug for July (94,200 courses), 90% of production in August (174,900 courses), and 90% of production in September (232,800 courses), alongside an allocation for clinical trials.
US health secretary Alex Azar said in a statement: “President Trump has struck an amazing deal to ensure Americans have access to the first authorised therapeutic for Covid-19.
“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 government believes the UK has a large enough stock of the drug to treat UK coronavirus patients.
In May, the United Nations announced a £6.5bn programme to speed up global access to safe, affordable and universal coronavirus vaccines and medicines.
Secretary general Antonio Guterres said at the time that treatments must be safe, affordable and “available for everyone, everywhere”. The UK backed the programme and Matt Hancock promised that any coronavirus drug would be made available to the UK public – but Nick Dearden of campaign group Global Justice Now said this was not a strong enough guarantee to protect people from the actions of unscrupulous drugs companies.
Oxford University’s Professor Peter Horby, chair of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said manufacturer Gilead would be under “certain political pressures locally” as a US company.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It does raise two very important questions: what is a fair price for a drug, and what is fair access to a drug, and those are common issues but are particularly important in a global crisis like this.
“That’s part of the fair access question – the trial that gave the result that allowed Remdesivir to sell their drug wasn’t just done in the US. There were patients participating through other European countries, in the UK as well, and internationally – Mexico and other places.
“And I wonder how they would feel knowing now that the drug is going to have restricted availability in their own country and would they have volunteered for that trial if they had known that?”
It also raises questions if a vaccine is found, he said.
“Commercial companies are built to behave like this and we need a much stronger framework if we are going to develop these things and they’re going to be used for national emergencies.”
Gilead has said it will charge $2,340 (£1,900) for a typical treatment course for people in the US and other developed countries.
It will sell for less in poorer countries, where generic drug-makers are being allowed to produce it.
Critics in the US attacked the price because taxpayers have funded much of the drug’s development.
In the UK, a clinical trial found a cheap steroid could also be used to fight coronavirus, with trials of dexamethasone showing it could reduce deaths by up to a third among patients suffering the worst effects of the virus.
For coronavirus patients those who end up on a ventilator, the mortality rate is normally above 40%.
But during the trial, the use of dexamethasone reduced this by a third.
The drug is cheap, too, with a complete course on the NHS costing only £5.
In June, the government said the NHS would make the drug available for patients.