The US is buying Covid-19 drug remdesivir like crazy. A generic is coming to SA – cheap.

Business Insider SA
  • The United States has struck a deal with Gilead Sciences to purchase more than 90% of the global supply of the drug remdesivir.
  • Remdesivir has been shown to help moderately ill patients recover more quickly from Covid-19, and it is the only proven treatment for the disease.
  • South Africa is getting a generic version much, much cheaper – and it'll be here by the end of the month.
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The United States has purchased more than 90% of the world's supply of remdesivir, the only proven treatment for Covid-19, in a move that leaves little for the rest of the world for at least the next three months.

However, a generic version of the drug is heading to South Africa later this month, and it will be much, much cheaper than in the US.

Gilead Sciences, the US-based company that makes the drug, agreed to sell more than 500,000 treatment courses to the US until September, which is almost the entire amount it has the ability to produce.

Remdesivir, which was originally developed to treat Ebola, has been shown to help moderately ill patients recover more quickly from Covid-19.

"President Trump has struck an amazing deal to ensure Americans have access to the first authorized therapeutic for Covid-19," the US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said, according to a statement released by the department.

Generic alternatives for the drug exist, but patent laws means that only low- and middle-income countries can produce their own. Gilead Sciences has licensed companies to do this in 127 countries – including South Africa.

The drug will be manufactured and distributed in South Africa through Cipla, and that company says the initial batch of 30,000 be ready at the end of the month.

More good news is that the drug will be much, much cheaper in South Africa, than in the US. In an emailed response to questions from Business Insider South Africa, Cipla said it will charge $55 (about R940) for a vial of generic remdesivir. A typical course uses about six vials, so you might end up paying in the region of R5,600. Cipla is charging the same price for public and private hospitals.

By way of comparison, a single vial for US government hospitals costs $390 (about R6,600). And a single vial in US private healthcare costs $590 (about R10,000) – almost double the cost of an entire course of the drug in South Africa

The US’s aggressive actions to secure a huge supply of remdesivir have raised eyebrows in certain quarters.

"It does raise two very important questions," Peter Horby, an epidemiologist at the University of Oxford in the UK, told the BBC. "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."

He also said the deal was partly to be expected, given that Gilead Sciences is a US company, the BBC reported.

RBC Capital Markets analyst Brian Abrahams estimated Gilead Sciences would generate about $1 billion in profit for 2020 with the new price of remdesivir, Business Insider previously reported.

(Compiled by Edward-John Bottomley. Additional reporting by Mia Jankowicz)

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