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U.S. Hospitals Are Running Out Of A Crucial Covid Drug Amid Delta Surge And Worldwide Shortages

By News Creatives Authors , in Business , at August 18, 2021


The World Health Organization put pressure on Swiss drugmaker Roche to share the technology and know-how needed for others to produce its arthritis drug tocilizumab—one of the only treatments cleared for use in Covid-19 patients—on Wednesday after it warned of global shortages amid soaring hospitalizations caused by the delta variant. 

Key Facts

WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Roche needs to ensure limited supplies of tocilizumab—which the WHO recommended for use in severe Covid-19 patients in June and can decrease deaths and the need for invasive ventilators—are distributed fairly among all countries.  

Tedros said Roche needs to “do better” than measures it has announced to address the shortage and, in a joint statement with health agency Unitaid, WHO said they “strongly encourage Roche to facilitate technology transfer and knowledge and data sharing to broaden access to this important treatment.”

Roche said it will not be asserting patent rights over the drug in low- and middle-income countries (alongside Chugai, which jointly holds the patents) to give “legal certainty” to other manufacturers and has been scaling up its production to meet demand throughout the pandemic, but warned there will be worldwide shortages for “weeks and months” to come. 

The drug is in very short supply in American hospitals after spikes in admissions due to Covid-19 caused by the delta variant, which prompted demand to soar “well over 400% of pre-Covid levels over the last two weeks,” said Genentech, a U.S. subsidiary of Roche.

American shortages will last “at least the next several weeks,” Genentech said, and supplies are expected to run out completely by the end of the week. 

Even when supplies are replenished—the next shipment should arrive by the end of August—Genentech said it expected additional shortages “in the weeks and months ahead” given the pace of the pandemic and high rates of hospitalization in the U.S.    

Crucial Quote

“We call on the company to ensure equitable allocation of current stocks of this medicine for all countries, including low- and middle-income countries,” the WHO and Unitaid said. The fair allocation of resources to fight the pandemic has been a consistent talking point from the WHO’s director, who has decried disparities in global vaccine distribution as a “moral catastrophe” and driven by the “greed” of pharmaceutical companies. 

Key Background

Tocilizumab, also known by brand names Actemra and RoActemra, is one of the few drugs approved for use in Covid-19 patients in the U.S., albeit on an emergency use basis. It does not target the virus but instead tackles the inflammation that can occur in severe Covid-19 cases. Its clinical record has been spotty—initial studies showed little benefit but more recent studies have been promising—and though endorsed by the WHO it has not been fully approved for use in Covid-19 patients in any country.   

Further Reading

Rheumatoid Arthritis Drug Shows Promise in Fighting Covid-19 (WSJ)

WHO recommends life-saving interleukin-6 receptor blockers for COVID-19 and urges producers to join efforts to rapidly increase access (WHO)

Full coverage and live updates on the Coronavirus


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