“Jaan hai to jahan hai” (If you have life, you have the world). Prime Minister Modi - with a skillful tweak, used the couplet of the 18th century poet - Mir Taqi Mir, while announcing the criticality of 21-day national lockdown from March 24, 2020 due to Covid-19 global pandemic. Many Indians lapped up this concept, considering it as a short haul sacrifice to save lives. Possibly, because the Prime Minister had said at that time, ‘Mahabharata battle won in 18 days, war against Coronavirus will take 21 days.’
As the Covid-19 went on a rampage despite the national lockdown, the Prime Minister, on April 11, 2020, changed it to ‘jaan bhi and jahan bhi’ (life also, the world also). This slogan seems to be more relevant in the emerging scenario.
After over a couple of months stringent national lockdown, the necessity and urgency of restarting active life started assuming a priority status for all concerned. But, the restarting process won’t be a piece of cake either – for anybody. As it would not only involve saving lives, but also – ensuring proper means of livelihood, making the industries gradually return to normal, and thereby revival of the country’s economy.
Dr. Ashish Jha, Director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, has summarized the nature of this challenge concisely, as quoted by the article – ‘Five key questions about India’s rising Covid-19 infections.’ This was published by BBC News on June 15, 2020. Acknowledging that India is in a very difficult situation, Dr. Jha said, “We are still early in the pandemic and we have a good year or so to go before we turn the corner. The question is what is the plan to get India through the next 12 to 16 months?”
Like many other industries, this is an arduous task to accomplish even for the drug industry, and for that matter – by any country. From the pharma industry perspective, I reckon, the commencement of the ‘restarting’ process, would pose a tough and dual challenge for many players – for different reasons. The current expectations require them going much beyond developing and delivering effective drugs and vaccine to win the Covid-19 war, and include the following, as well:
- The population needs to develop either a vaccine-induced or a herd immunity, for a long-term protection against Covid-19. Pharma companies can facilitate the former one.
- The entire population should have access to scientific evidence-based Coronavirus drugs and vaccine – at a price that most people can afford, to achieve the goal of vaccine-induced immunity.
In this article, I shall explore the ground issues in this area while confronting this dual challenge by the pharmaceutical industry, in general.
Developing herd immunity not an option for India:
As it is known to many, even without an effective vaccine, it is possible for the population to develop a herd immunity. However, in this situation, a very large population will need to get infected, with its consequent impact on healthcare infrastructure and people’s lives. But, it will possibly be foolhardy to even think about this option, particularly for any country, such as India.
Dr. Ashish Jha in the above article on the BBC News, has also captured this challenge, aptly. He articulated, ‘India cannot wait for 60% of its people to get infected to achieve herd immunity and stop the virus. ‘That would mean millions of people dead. And that is not an acceptable outcome.’ Moreover, India’s Covid-19 infection curve has not started flattening – there is no consistent and steady decline, just yet. Thus, a vaccine-induced immunity seems to be the only prudent choice for the country.
Other reasons why an early intervention is necessary:
A national lockdown in India was certainly necessary to save lives. However, its prolonged duration of over 3 months, has caused a widespread confusion, anxiety, and fear among the public regarding the disease. Consequently, it has created several unintended social consequences, such as disease related stigma, discrimination, besides triggering several serious health hazards. The World Health Organization (W.H.O) also recognizes this problem.
Instances of stigma and discrimination against medical personnel – doctors and health care workers are common and have already been reported. Similarly, those working in aviation, especially on flights that were sent to bring the Indians back from COVID-19 affected foreign land, also met the same fate. Interestingly, such instances are not uncommon even within various housing societies for high income groups and communities. The stigma associated with COVID-19 is real and here to stay, at least for some time.
Serious health hazards like, panic, depression and anxiety have also gone viral as the nation was observing lockdown. Experts, reportedly, have opined that the fear of contracting viruses, compulsorily going to institutional quarantine centers and rising number of deaths, among others, are big triggers for all. Many believe, various communications – formal and informal – to keep people indoors, have given rise to such unintended consequences involving average Indians.
These developments further reinforce the critical need for an early therapeutic intervention in the disease treatment and prevention areas, such as an effective vaccine, where pharma can deliver what it does the best, and sooner.
Green shoots of overcoming the first challenge are visible:
Although, the world has not reached there, just yet, some green shoots of overcoming the first challenge with scientific-evidence-based drugs and vaccine, are now in sight. Treating Covid-19 effectively with the old warhorse – dexamethasone at a very affordable price, is almost a reality today. W.H.O has also called to ramp up dexamethasone production for Covid-19 patients.
Meanwhile, a few other drugs, such as remdesivir and favipiravir have also received marketing authorization of DCGI for treatment of Coronavirus in India. Similarly, Oxford University and AstraZeneca’s experimental Covid-19 vaccine have, reportedly, entered the final stages of clinical trials. Scientists are now in the final assessment of how well the vaccine works in protecting people from becoming infected by the virus.
A shift in the most vulnerable population poses another tough challenge:
As the need to restart the economy of the country becomes paramount, alongside the urgency of saving lives and livelihood, a shift in the most vulnerable population for Covid-19 infection is clearly visible.
As many would know, Coronavirus pandemic started with the more affluent class of the society who mainly travel abroad for work or studies. However, it is now spreading fast in the lesser privileged social strata, including poor migrant labors and other marginalized population. The spread now spans across from affluent communities, right through densely populated slum areas. The trend keeps going north, as each day passes, as of now.
In such a situation, to contain the disease effectively, Covid-19 drugs and vaccine must be accessible and affordable to all. Making this requirement another tough challenge for the pharma industry – as and when the therapies receive marketing approval of drug regulators.
Recently available drugs are expensive, even in India:
From the recent trend it appears, unlike hydroxychloroquine or dexamethasone, most of these emergency use Covid-19 drugs, such as remdesivir or favipiravir may not be accessible and affordable to a vast majority of the population, as discussed below.
Like remdesivir, favipiravir is also, reportedly, the subject of at least 18 clinical trials involving more than 3,000 patients across India, USA, Canada, Italy, China, France, UK and other countries. Encouragingly, for the Oxford University developed Coronavirus vaccine, Serum Institute is expected to price it at Rs.1,000 per vaccine. Thus, for a family of 4 persons, it would cost around Rs. 4000. Be that as it may, lets have a look at the comparative clinical efficacy of cheaper and relatively expensive repurposed older drugs, against their respective costs.
Comparative efficacy and cost of a cheaper and expensive repurposed drugs:
While comparing the relative clinical efficacy of cheaper and relatively expensive repurposed drugs – against their respective costs, some interesting facts surface, as follows:
According to the reported results, published by FiercePharma in an article on June 24, 2020, dexamethasone treatment led to a 35 percent reduction in death rate among patients on invasive mechanical ventilation and 20 percent for those receiving oxygen without invasive ventilation. The dose used was, 6 mg of dexamethasone in a single dose per day – either orally or via intravenous injection – for ten days at a stretch. Whereas, the cost of Dexamethasone (0.5mg) in India, for a strip of 30 Tablets, is around Rs.6.00.
Similarly, the same article reported, remdesivir has been found to reduce the death rate among severe patients to 7.7 percent from 13 percent for placebo, a difference that was not statistically significant.Whereas, remdesivir in India, will cost around Rs 5,000-6,000/dose. And its recommended dose for adults and pediatric patients weighing 40 kg and higher, is a single loading dose of 200 mg on Day 1 followed by once daily maintenance doses of 100 mg from day 2 up to 5 to 10 days.
Similarly, favipiravir will be available in India as a 200 mg tablet at a Maximum Retail Price (MRP) of Rs 3,500 for a strip of 34 tablets. Whereas, its recommended dose is 1,800 mg twice daily on day one, followed by 800 mg twice daily up to day 14, according to its manufacturer.
An interesting fallout of Dexamethasone study:
An interesting fallout of the dexamethasone study on arriving at a fair price for remdesivir for treating Covid-19 patients, is worth noting. The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER) had earlier highlighted the “cost-effectiveness” benchmark price of remdesivir ranges from $4,580 to $5,080. However, ‘a new scenario analysis assuming the likely incorporation of dexamethasone as standard of care, produces a lower benchmark price range for remdesivir of $2,520 to $2,800.’
As on June 28, 2020 morning, crossing half a million mark, the recorded Coronavirus cases in the country have reached 529,577 with 16,103 deaths. And the climb continues. In the context of the same disease, a publication of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) had recently articulated: ‘In less than 3 months, COVID-19 has become a global pandemic of proportions we have not experienced this century. This has led to some of the largest economies in the world racing to develop a vaccine to combat the disease. However, in this time of urgency, patent laws may conflict with the equal provision of these future medicines worldwide.’
In sync with this sentiment, apprehensions of profiteering on drugs, tests, or vaccines used for the COVID-19 pandemic are mounting in almost all countries. Governments are now being encouraged to suspend and override patents and take other measures, such as price controls, to ensure availability, reduce prices and save more lives.
According to reports, Canada, Chile, Ecuador and Germany have already taken steps to make it easier to override patents by issuing ‘compulsory licenses’ for COVID-19 medicines, vaccines and other medical tools. Similarly, the government of Israel issued a compulsory license for patents on a medicine they were investigating for use for COVID-19.
From the industry, a strong demand for fiscal stimulus, such as the removal of the Health Cess and Customs Duty, to support patient access to critical medical products, is also gaining momentum, alongside the early release of Government payment to providers.
Thus, while exploring the dual challenge lying ahead for many pharma companies – to save both lives and livelihood – delivering effective drugs and vaccine may probably be an easier task than improving access to those – for all, in a meaningful way.
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.