COVID-19: Scrambling for unavailable Remdesivir, desperate patients in India turned to Bangladesh

29 June 2020
On 13 June, the health ministry came out with guidelines on the use of Remdesivir—it allowed the drug to be used to treat moderately-ill patients.
ULRICH PERREY / AFP / Getty Images
On 13 June, the health ministry came out with guidelines on the use of Remdesivir—it allowed the drug to be used to treat moderately-ill patients.
ULRICH PERREY / AFP / Getty Images

In the next few weeks, India will face a grim reckoning with the coronavirus pandemic as it accelerates in every corner of the nation. Through April and May, the Narendra Modi-led government’s policy to restrict testing has fuelled the pandemic, and as July approaches, the worst of the outbreak is unfolding in the country’s hospitals.

All through June, coronavirus patients have had a slow, horrible realisation that the Indian government did not have a single vial of a one of the few promising experimental drugs being used to treat the disease: Remdesivir.  The drug, patented by American pharmaceutical giant Gilead Sciences, first emerged as a possible treatment in January, when it showed anti-viral activity in COVID-19 patients in China. By May, it had gained a reputation for reducing the recovery time of COVID-19 patients after the New England Journal of Medicine published a study stating Remdesivir shortened the duration of the illness by four days. In India, however, the government had failed to anticipate the demand for the drug, and create a stockpile, despite granting an emergency, sweetheart deal to Gilead Sciences.

On 1 May, the United States Food and Drug Administration approved Remdesivir for “emergency use,” and Gilead Sciences, which had 1.5 million doses in its stockpile, gave the majority of it to the US. That’s when other nations truly began scrambling for the drug.

I tracked the journey of one Indian patient who was prescribed Remdesivir by a hospital. The patient’s family went on a roller coaster journey to access the drug, running from pillar to post, as the patient’s health deteriorated. The family’s journey exemplifies the struggles of Indian patients being prescribed Remdesivir.

To blunt concerns raised by activists and patients, Gilead Sciences announced, on 12 May, that it had entered into agreements—known as voluntary licenses—with Indian manufacturers who could produce and market generic versions of the drug. Gilead’s Indian licensees are Cipla, Hetero Labs, Zydus Cadila Healthcare, Dr Reddy’s Laboratories, Jubliant Lifesciences, and Mylan.

Vidya Krishnan is a writer and journalist. Her first book, Phantom Plague: The Untold Story of How Tuberculosis Shaped our History, will be published by PublicAffairs in 2021.

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