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US is ‘undermining’ coronavirus response by buying up global supply of Remdesivir drug, minister claims

The patent for the antiviral drug is held by California-based firm Gilead Sciences (PA)

3 min read

Business Minister Nadhim Zahawi has suggested the US is “undermining” efforts to fight coronavirus after it bought up the global supply of potential treatment Remdesivir.

On Monday American officials announced they had purchased more than half a million courses of the drug from California-based biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences.

The acquisition represents nearly all of the company’s production from July to September, effectively limiting its availability to the rest of the world.

Clinical trials of the antiviral medicine, originally developed to treat Ebola, were praised as the “biggest step forward since coronavirus pandemic began” by Health Secretary Matt Hancock in March.

It was found to shorten the recovery period of seriously ill Covid-19 patients, with a potential to also improve survival rates.

Asked by Sky News if the UK would also aim to stockpile the drug should it become available, Mr Zahawi said the Government wants to “cooperate” with other countries because “the best outcome for the whole world is that we work together”. 

Britain was working “responsibly so we actually deal with the pandemic in a way that helps all of the world", he added.

“By attempting to compete I think we ultimately undermine all of our strategies. It’s much better to work together than to work to undermine each other," Mr Zahawi said.

"We will continue in that spirit."


Concerns were also raised by Oxford University's Professor Peter Horby, who advises the government in his role as chair of the new and emerging respiratory virus threats advisory group (Nervtag).

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme Gilead would be under “political pressures” as a US company to supply the drug domestically.

Prof Horby said: "It does raise two very important questions: 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.

"That's part of the fair access question, the trial that gave the result that allowed Remdesivir to sell their drug wasn't just done in the US, there were patients participating through other European countries, in the UK as well, and internationally, Mexico and other places.

"And I wonder how they would feel knowing now that the drug is going to have restricted availability in their own country and would they have volunteered for that trial if they had known that?"

Meanwhile Dr Andrew Hill, a senior visiting research fellow at Liverpool University, warned the move could be “a taste of things to come” should an effective vaccine be found. 

He told Sky News: "This deal that's been struck by America means that people with COVID-19 in the UK can't get access to these treatments that would get them out of hospital quickly and might improve their chances of survival.”

"So far, we know that for the next three months there will be no supplies of Remdesivir - America will take the drugs and we won't have access to them.

"That's the case in the UK and Europe."

Gilead Sciences, which holds the patent for Remdesivir, announced over the weekend it would allow firms in 127 poor or middle-income countries to make generic versions of the drug.

But developed countries where its patent applies, including the UK, would only be able to buy the drug from them at a cost of $2,340 (£1,900) per course of treatment once more becomes available. 

Explaining the pricing structure in an open letter, the company’s chief executive Daniel O’Day insisted Gilead had “considered the full scope of our responsibilities” when entering into a deal with the US government.

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