Covid-19 Drugs: Accessibility, Affordability And Availability

Covid-19 continues refusing to unravel the key to neutralize its destructive power – for bringing human life and the socioeconomic fabric of a country back to the old normal again. Just as India, all other countries are, apparently, awaiting a ‘magic bullet’ to come, breaking the shackles of this labyrinth, so to speak.

General expectation is, all concerned will understand that coming out of the new Coronavirus maze, sooner, at any cost – is the only way to bring back life, livelihoods, social fabric and the national economy on to the rail, again. Consequently, every entity in the world would require making moderate sacrifices in this unprecedented endeavor.

Right at this time, accessibility, affordability and availability of emergency use Covid-19 drugs, for various reasons, are going beyond the reach of a large number of the population who need those the most. This is happening not just beyond the shores of India, but in the country, as well, perhaps much more than expected. Interestingly, the issue pertains more to Covid-10 repurposed older drugs, and not so much for vaccines – just yet, as I shall deliberate below.

In this article, I shall focus on this issue, hoping for a reversal of the current trend through active involvement of the both the drug company leadership, and also the national decision makers to safeguard public health interest. Interestingly, the drug pricing issue, mostly with repurposed older drugs, is both global and local. Thus, let me first dwell on the subject of drug price increases during this global public health emergency.

Drug price increases during a global public health emergency: 

According to the July 08, 2020 report of IHS Markit, prices of critical drugs are increasing at a time when they are needed the most, as the governments and individual patients potentially struggle to pay for them.

The findings brought to the fore, prices for the 10 most critical drugs to treat COVID-19 have risen a highly unusual 4 percent globally, during the crisis. The cost for over half of these essential COVID-19 medicines rose across 80 countries between February and June 2020. Let me illustrate this point with one example each of Covid-19 emergency treatment options, starting with the global outcry for the same.

Global skepticism on remdesivir pricing:

As the world anxiously awaits a Covid-19 vaccine to hit the market, an experimental repurposed older drug – remdesivir of Gilead Sciences Inc. was introduced as an emergency treatment option for this infection. Pending detail clinical trial results, currently the drug has received only emergency regulatory approvals with an expectation that it may shorten the recovery period in some severely ill Covid-19 patients.

Gilead Sciences, on June 29, 2020, announced its price of $2,340 for a typical treatment course for people covered by government health programs in the United States and other developed countries.However, it will cost $3,120 for patients with private insurance. This price was swiftly and widely criticized, because the drug has received at least $70 million in public funding toward its development - the report highlighted.

Elaborating what would be affordable pricing for this drug in the developed world, another reportquoted the watchdog group – Public Citizen. This group maintains $1 per day is fair. It points to a cost-recovery model developed by the University of Liverpool, which calculated that the cost of manufacturing remdesivir at scale would be 93 cents per dose, leaving the remainder as, in its view, “a reasonable profit to Gilead,” as the report underscored.

Interestingly, analysts expect Gilead to make $525 million on remdesivir sales this year and $2.1 billion next year. This isn’t the first time Gilead is facing public criticism on life saving drug pricing. Just to recap, in 2013, the company also received ‘brickbats’ for its $84,000 price tag for groundbreaking hepatitis C treatment Sovaldi—followed up by its combo pill Harvoni, priced at $94,500. But those were first in class new and innovative drugs. Nevertheless, the remdesivir pricing issue is viewed differently, because it is not just a repurposed older drug, but indicated to combat a global public health crisis.

Let me now give an Indian example on a similar issue, but with a different anti-Covid-19 drug.

Criticism in India with Covid- 19 drug pricing: 

The Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) had on June19, 2020 approved anti-viral drug favipiravir, manufactured in India by Glenmark Pharmaceuticals Ltd. This approval was for “restricted emergency use” of the drug in mild to moderate cases of COVID-19 in the country, in view of the urgent medical need during the pandemic. Favipiravir is made under the brand name Avigan by Japan’s Fujifilm Holdings Corp and was approved for use as an anti-flu drug there in 2014.

According to media reports, Glenmark launched the drug on June 20, 2020 with the brand name FabiFlu at a price of Rs 103 per tablet. On this pricing issue, a member of the Indian Parliament, reportedly, made a representation to the DCGI stating, as a patient has to take 122 tablets of the drug in 14 days, the total cost of the treatment will come to around Rs 12,500. The M.P argued, “price quoted for this drug is definitely not affordable to the common people,” and ‘is definitely not in the interest of the poor, lower middle class and middle-class people of India.’ Additionally, the submission mentioned that ‘Glenmark has also claimed that this drug is effective in co-morbid conditions like hypertension, diabetes, whereas in reality, as per protocol summary, this trial was not designed to assess the FabiFlu in comorbid condition,’ as the letter read.

However, on July 13, 2020, Glenmark reportedly said that it had reduced Favipiravir price from Rs103 to Rs75 per tablet. The Company said, “The price reduction has been made possible through benefits gained from higher yields and better scale, as both the API (Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient) and formulations are made at Glenmark’s facilities in India, the benefits of which are being passed on to patients in the country.”

Thereafter, as reported on July 19, 2020, after receiving a complaint from a member of Parliament, the DCGI sought a clarification from Glenmark over its alleged “false claims” about the use of FabiFlu on Covid-19 patients with comorbidities, including the “pricing” of the drug.

In response Glenmark stated, “Compared to other therapies approved for emergency use in Covid-19, FabiFlu is much more economical and an effective treatment option.” The comparing argued, the estimated total cost for the full course of Favipiravir is Rs 9,150. Whereas, the same for Remdesivir, Tocilizumab and Itolizumab will come to Rs 24,000-30,000, Rs 44,000 and Rs 32,000, respectively.

Importantly, seriously ill Covid-19 patients will often be given many of these drugs, such as, tocilizumab, remdesivir and favipiravir, either one after the other, or simultaneously, making the overall price of treatment hefty for many. From this perspective, the bottom line is, Covid-19 drug treatment in India – where the out of pocket drug expenses is one of the highest in the world, won’t be affordable to many. Besides, there are other critical issues related to Covid-19 drug access and availability to Indian patients. The question that surfaces in this situation, are Covid-19 drug prices are high where there is no or less competition. If, so this is an avoidable situation.

Could this be due to less or no competition?

Continuing with the example of Favipiravir against the above backdrop, Cipla also, reportedly, received the DCGI approval for the launch of experimental Covid-19 drug Favipiravir in India on July 24, 2020. The brand will be marketed under the brand name Ciplenza in the first week of August and is priced much less than Glenmark’s Favipiravir – at Rs 68 per tablet. Could this be due to market competition?

Possibly so, because another report of July 25, 2020 indicated, nearly 10 other Favipiravir formulations will be launched shortly, despite inconclusive scientific clinical evidence as on date. Favipiravir price is expected to fall further due to competition. In that case, what could be the takeaway message, when this price trend is viewed against the response of Glenmark to the DCGI letter, justifying FabiFlu pricing?

Other issues of Covid-19 drug availability and access to Indian patients:

Other critical issues related to Covid-19 drug availability and access to Indian patients include, prices of Covid-19 drugs shooting up in short supply. There have been reports of difficulty in accessing remdesivir in India, too, although, Gilead Sciences has licensed this drug out to a few Indian generic pharmaceutical companies such as Hetero Healthcare, which has announced that it would manufacture and sell it at Rs 5,400 per vial. According to the latest protocol of the health ministry, the dosage of remdesivir should be 200 mg IV on day 1 followed by 100 mg IV daily for 4 days (5 days in total). From this one can easily work out the treatment cost with remdesivir for each patient.

Moreover, a BBC investigation has found that two life-saving drugs used to treat Covid-19 patients in India – remdesivir and tocilizumab – are in short supply and being sold for excessive rates on a thriving black market. Yet another recent investigation has unraveled a growing black-market for plasma therapy, ‘born out of the desperation of families willing to do anything to save their loved ones infected with Covid-19.’

I am citing these examples to give a sense of the plight of common Covid-19 patients from the drug availability, affordability and accessibility perspective – to save lives. However, the good news is, in this otherwise gloomy scenario, as perceived by many, a more empathetic scenario has been reported from many Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers.

More empathetic scenario with Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers: 

According to the World Health Organization (W.H.O), over 160 groups are working on COVID-19 vaccines, and 24 candidates have already reached human testing, Some are, reportedly gearing up for phase 3. It is widely expected, vaccines might be ready later this year or early next year. Vaccine developers are racing ahead at record speed, supported by Governments and facilitated by the drug regulators, to translate billion dreams coming true amid a public health catastrophe.

For the world population to acquire immunity against the Covid-19 onslaught, the key question remains: ‘At what price’, when vaccines are available? According to reports, the encouraging news is, some major vaccine makers, such as:

  • AstraZeneca (with Oxford University) plans to price at “no profit” during the pandemic “to support broad and equitable access around the world.” The company has entered several agreements with governments and other groups to provide about 2 billion doses around the world, at no profit.
  • Similarly, J&J has also “committed to bringing a safe and effective vaccine to the public on a not-for-profit basis for emergency pandemic use.”
  • Pfizer CEO has also said the company “will make a very, very marginal profit at this stage.” He pointed out that the company hasn’t taken any governmental funding, unlike other players. The company and its partner BioNTech have entered a deal with the U.K. government for 30 million doses. Moreover, Pfizer and BioNTech will get $1.95 billion from the US government to produce and deliver 100 million doses of their Covid-19 vaccine candidate.
  • Moderna CEO said, there’s “no world, I think, where we would contemplate to price this higher than other respiratory virus vaccines.”
  • Sanofi, which has separate COVID-19 vaccine partnerships with GlaxoSmithKline and Translate Bio, has “been committed to working with governments, partners and payers to ensure that when new vaccines are approved, we will make them available and affordable,”
  • Merck CEO also said the company has committed to “broad, equitable, affordable access.”
  • Nearer home, Serum Institute of India, has pledged to make 1 billion doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca jointly formed COVID-19 vaccine at under Rs1000 per shot. The production could start as early as first quarter next year. Company CEO said this is not the time to make money from a vaccine against the novel Coronavirus, which has caused a global pandemic.

These pledges do give a comfort to many. Because, unlike Covid-19 repurposed older drug manufacturers, Covid-19 vaccine makers seem to be more empathetic to make these accessible and available to the world population at an affordable price.

Conclusion:

Well past a million mark, as on July 26, 2020 morning, the recorded Coronavirus cases in the country reached 1,339,176 with 31,425 deaths. With the number of daily cases being more than Brazil, India is poised to bridge its gap with the South American country. The steep unenviable climb continues.

The July 21, 2020 article – ‘Drug Pricing Back in the Spotlight,’ published in the PharmaExec.com, quoted the ICER Executive Vice-President saying,’ the drug pricing conversation is different in a pandemic.’ The system needs to ensure public access to drugs and vaccines in this global health crisis. If it does not happen, I reckon, appropriate authorities must step in with specific remedial measures.

Otherwise, the kudos showered on the drug industry for promptly offering a number of repurposed older drugs for emergency use against Covid-19 may not last long, if these treatments are not affordable and accessible to a vast majority. From this perspective, the questions being raised on accessibility, affordability and availability of many Covid-19 drugs, need to be addressed and resolved – soon.

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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