Coronavirus Outbreak: Drug Shortage, Treatment And Unease – A Review

The Coronavirus outbreak has reached a “decisive point” and has “pandemic potential”, said the Director General of the World Health Organization (W.H.O), reportedly, on February 27, 2020, urging governments to act swiftly and aggressively to contain the virus. He further added, “We are actually in a very delicate situation in which the outbreak can go in any direction based on how we handle it.” Alerting all, he appealed, “this is not a time for fear. This is a time for taking action to prevent infection and save lives now.”

As on March 08, 2020 – 106,211 coronavirus cases (view by country) were reported globally, with 3,600 deaths and 60,197 patients recovered. Thus, the most relevant question now is the level of preparedness of each country, to prevent a possible epidemic, which may even strike at a humongous scale. This will be relevant for both, the countries already infected with a coronavirus – in a varying degree, as well as, those who are still out of it.

From the drug industry perspective, equally pertinent will be to assess on an ongoing basis its impact on the medical product supply-chain and further intensifying ongoing efforts to find the ‘magic bullet’ – an effective remedy, partly addressing the unease of all, on this score. In this article, I shall try to ferret out the current status on these points, based on available and contemporary data.

The impact assessment has commenced:

While on the current impact assessment, I shall restrict my discussion on the largest pharma and biological market of the world – the United States (US) and of course, our own – India, starting with the former. On February 14, 2020, the US released a statement of the Commissioner of Food and Drugs Administration titled, ‘FDA’s Actions in Response to 2019 Novel Coronavirus at Home and Abroad.’ Highlighting the proactive actions of the regulatory agency, the statement recorded:

“We are keenly aware that the outbreak will likely impact the medical product supply chain, including potential disruptions to supply or shortages of critical medical products in the U.S. We are not waiting for drug and device manufacturers to report shortages to us—we are proactively reaching out to manufacturers as part of our vigilant and forward-leaning approach to identifying potential disruptions or shortages.” Adding further, he revealed that the US-FDA is in touch with regulators globally and has added resources to quickly spot “potential disruptions or shortages.”

Whereas in India, the Chemicals and Fertilizers Ministry has also announced: “The Government of India is closely monitoring the supply of APIs/intermediates/Key starting materials (KSMs) which are imported from China and the effect of the outbreak of a novel coronavirus in China on their supply.”

The current status:

As this is an ongoing emergency exercise, on February 27, 2020, by another statement, the US-FDA reported the first shortage of a drug, without naming it, due to the COVID-19 outbreak. It identified about 20 other Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs) or finished drug formulations, which they source only from China. Since January 24, the US-FDA has, reportedly, been in touch with more than 180 manufacturers of human drugs to monitor the situation and take appropriate measures wherever necessary. However, the prices of some key ingredients have already started increasing.

Back home, on March 03, 2020, Reuters reported, the Indian Government has asked the Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) to restrict export of 26 APIs and other formulations, including Paracetamol, amid the recent coronavirus outbreak. Interestingly, these 26 active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) and medicines account for 10 percent of all Indian pharmaceutical exports and includes several antibiotics, such as tinidazole and erythromycin, the hormone progesterone and Vitamin B12, among others, as the report indicated.

It is unclear, though, how this restriction would impact the availability of these medicines in the countries that import from India, especially formulations, and also China. For example, in the United States, Indian imports, reportedly accounted for 24 percent of medicines and 31 percent of medicinal ingredients in 2018, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Be that as it may, it still remains a reality that China accounted for 67.56 per cent of India’s total imports of bulk drugs and drug intermediates at USD 2,405.42 million in 2018-19.

Prior to this import ban, a report of February 17, 2020 had flagged that paracetamol prices have shot up by 40 percent in the country, while the cost of azithromycin, an antibiotic used for treating a variety of bacterial infections, has risen by 70 percent. The Chairman of Zydus Cadila also expects: “The pharma industry could face shortages in finished drug formulations starting April if supplies aren’t restored by the first week of the next month,” as the news item highlighted.

No significant drug shortages reported, just yet:

From the above details, it appears, no significant drug shortages have been reported due to Coronavirus epidemics in China – not just yet. Moreover, the Minister of Chemicals and Fertilizers has also assured: ‘No shortage of drug ingredients for next 3 months.’ He further added: ‘All initiatives are being taken to ensure there is no impact of the disease in India.’

However, on March 03, 2020, W.H.O, reportedly has warned of a global shortage and price gouging for protective equipment to fight the fast-spreading coronavirus and asked companies and governments to increase production by 40 percent as the death toll from the respiratory illness mounted. Moody’s Investors Service also predicted, coronavirus outbreak may increase demand, but poses a risk of supply chain disruptions, especially for APIs and components for medical devices sourced from China.

In view of these cautionary notes, especially the health care and regulatory authorities, should continue keeping the eye on the ball. More importantly, commensurate and prompt interventions of the Government, based on real-time drug supply-chain monitoring, along with the trend of the disease spread, will play a critical role to tide over this crisis.

In search of the ‘Magic Bullet’: 

Encouragingly, on February 16, 2020, the National Medical Products Administration of China has approved the use of Favilavir, an anti-viral drug, for the treatment for coronavirus. The drug has reportedly shown efficacy in treating the disease with minimal side effects in a clinical trial involving 70 patients. The clinical trial is being conducted in Shenzhen, Guangdong province. Formerly known as Fapilavir, Favilavir was developed by Zhejiang Hisun Pharmaceutical of China. A large number of other promising R&D initiatives are being undertaken, in tandem, by brilliant scientific minds and entities to find an effective treatment for this viral disease. To give a feel of it, let me cite just a few examples, both global and local, as below.

Pfizer Inc. has announced that it has identified certain antiviral compounds, which were already in development, with potential to treat coronavirus-affected people. The company is currently engaged in screening the compounds. It is planning to initiate clinical studies on these compounds by year-end, following any positive results expected by this month end.

Several large and small pharma/biotech are now engaged in developing a vaccine or a treatment. Gilead has, reportedly, initiated two phase III studies in February 2020, to evaluate its antiviral candidate – remdesivir, as a treatment for Covid -19. Takeda is also exploring the potential to repurpose marketed products and molecules to potentially treat COVID-19, besides developing a plasma-derived therapy for the same. Pipeline candidates of other companies are in earlier stages of development, as reported.

Whereas in India, Serum Institute of India (SIL) is collaborating with Codagenix, a US-based biopharmaceutical company, to develop a coronavirus cure using a vaccine strain similar to the original virus. The vaccine is currently in the pre-clinical testing phase, while human trials are expected to commence in the next six months. SII is expected to launch the vaccine in the market by early 2022.

Zydus Cadila, as well, has launched a fast-tracked program to develop a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, adopting a two-pronged approach, a DNA based vaccine and a live attenuated recombinant measles virus vectored vaccine to combat the virus. These initiatives seem to be a medium to long-term shots – laudable, nonetheless. 

Current off-label drug treatment for coronavirus:

Some of the drugs, reportedly, being used in China to treat coronavirus include, AbbVie’s HIV drug, Kaletra and Roche’s arthritis drug – Tocilizumab (Actemra). However, none of these drug treatments have been authorized yet by drug regulators, to treat patients with coronavirus infection.

According to the Reuters report of March 04, 2020, China’s the National Health Commission, in its latest version of online treatment guidelines, has indicated Roche’s Tocilizumab for coronavirus patients who show serious lung damage and elevated level of a protein called Interleukin 6, which could indicate inflammation or immunological diseases.

However, there is no clinical trial evidence just yet that the drug will be effective on coronavirus patients and it has also not received approval from China’s National Medical Product Administration for use in coronavirus infections. Nonetheless, Chinese researchers recently registered a 3-month clinical trial for Actemra on 188 coronavirus patients. According to China’s clinical trials registration database, the period of trial is shown from February 10 to May 10. 

Is coronavirus becoming a community transmitted infection?

Even while grappling with an increasing number of COVID-19 positive patients, the Indian Government is showing a brave front, as it should. However, it has also confirmed “some cases of community transmission.” This unwelcome trend makes India the part of a small group of countries, including China, Japan, Italy and South Korea, where community transmission of the virus has taken place. This is a cause of an additional concern.

Although, there has been no significant drug shortages reported yet, shortages of  hand sanitizers,recommended for frequent use by the W.H.O and other competent bodies, as they can, reportedly kill Covid-19. Similarly, N95 masks useful to prevent the spread of the disease, have also disappeared, adding more fuel to fire, if not creating a panic-like situation, for many.

Conclusion:

Most global drug players with a business focus on branded – patented drugs, are not expected to fight with the supply disruptions. As reported, ‘Several top drugmakers – including Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Bayer, Merck KGaA and Roche—recently confirmed to FiercePharma that they have stock policies in place to minimize the impact.”

But, for the generic drug industry the disruption in the supply chain may have a snowballing effect. For example, as the March 03, 2020 edition of the New York Times (NYT) reported – supply chain disruption in sourcing some APIs from China is being felt most acutely in India, as the Government decided to stop exporting 26 drugs, most of them antibiotics, without explicit government permission. The same article also highlighted the possible multiplier effect of this development with its observation: “That’s a problem for the rest of the world, which relies on India’s drug makers for much of its supply of generic drugs. India exported about $19 billions of drugs last year and accounted for about one-fifth of the world’s exports of generics by volume”, it added.

As on date, there is no known cure for coronavirus infection. The magic-bullet has yet to be found out. However, over 80 clinical trials has, reportedly, been launched to test coronavirus treatments. This includes, repurposing older drugs, as well. Recently, only Favilavir, an anti-viral drug, has been approved for treatment for coronavirus by the National Medical Products Administration of China.

Coming back to the unease of many in India, the country’s perennial shortages of doctors, paramedical staff, hospital beds, adequate quarantine facility for a large number of patients and fragile public healthcare delivery system, still pose a humongous challenge in this crisis. More so, when just in the last week, U.S. intelligence sources, reportedly, told Reuters that ‘India’s available countermeasures and the potential for the virus to spread its dense population was a focus of serious concern.’

By: Tapan J. Ray 

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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