The US has bought up virtually all the stocks for the next three months of one of the two drugs proven to work against Covid-19, leaving none for the UK, Europe or most of the rest of the world. Buying up the world’s supply of remdesivir is not just a reaction to the increasing spread and death toll. The US has taken an “America first” attitude throughout the global pandemic.
Experts and campaigners are alarmed both by the US unilateral action on remdesivir and the wider implications, for instance in the event of a vaccine becoming available. The Trump administration has already shown that it is prepared to outbid and out-manoeuvre all other countries to secure the medical supplies it needs for the US.
“They’ve got access to most of the drug supply of remdesivir, so there’s nothing for Europe,” said Dr Andrew Hill, senior visiting research fellow at Liverpool University. “This is the first major approved drug, and where is the mechanism for access?” said Dr Hill. “Once again we’re at the back of the queue.” There was no mechanism to ensure a supply outside the US. “Imagine this was a vaccine,” he said. “That would be a firestorm. But perhaps this is a taste of things to come.”
The drug, which was invented for Ebola but failed to work, is under patent to Gilead, which means no other company in wealthy countries can make it. The cost is around $3,200 per treatment of six doses, according to the US government statement.
In May, French manufacturer Sanofi said the US would get first access to its Covid vaccine if it works. Its CEO, Paul Hudson, was quoted as saying: “The US government has the right to the largest pre-order because it’s invested in taking the risk,” and, he added, the US expected that “if we’ve helped you manufacture the doses at risk, we expect to get the doses first”. Later it backtracked under pressure from the French government.
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau warned there could be unintended negative consequences if the US continued to outbid its allies. “We know it is in both of our interests to work collaboratively and cooperatively to keep our citizens safe,” he said.
The Trump administration has also invoked the Defense Production Act to block some medical goods made in the US from being sent abroad.
Hill said there was a way for the UK to secure supplies of this and other drugs during the pandemic, through what is known as a compulsory licence, which overrides the intellectual property rights of the company. That would allow the UK government to buy from generic companies in Bangladesh or India, where Gilead’s patent is not recognised.
The UK has always upheld patents, backing the argument of pharma companies that they need their 20-year monopoly to recoup the money they put into research and development. But other countries have shown an interest in compulsory licensing.