Roche Urged to Lower Cost for WHO-Recommended COVID-19 Antibody Treatment

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The World Health Organization (WHO) announced today its recommendation for a combination regimen of corticosteroids with tocilizumab or sarilumab, two anti-inflammatory monoclonal antibodies, for the treatment of severe or critical COVID-19. 

The new recommendation from the WHO follows study data published in the Journal of the American Medical Associationwhich shows the two monoclonal antibodies significantly reduced the risk of death and the need for mechanical ventilation across 11,000 patients in 27 randomized controlled trials. 

In the meta-analysis, researchers found that the efficacy of the interleukin-6 antagonists sarilumab and tocilizumab was enhanced if they were given alongside corticosteroids. A combination of either antibody with critical steroids resulted in a 17% reduction in mortality compared with patients who received corticosteroids alone. 

Additionally, the combination approach reduced the risk of mechanical ventilation or mortality by up to 21% compared with corticosteroid monotherapy. 

“These drugs offer hope for patients and families who are suffering from the devastating impact of severe and critical COVID-19,” according to a statement made by WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. But IL-6 receptor blockers remain inaccessible and unaffordable for the majority of the world.” 

Dr. Ghebreyesus added that there is currently an “inequitable distribution of vaccines” across the globe, which increases the susceptibility of people in low- and middle-income countries to the novel coronavirus.

The WHO Is calling for manufacturers of monoclonal antibodies to cut prices and increase the availability of supplies to low- and middle-income nations, particularly parts of the world where COVID-19 continues to surge. The organization also encourages companies to improve transparency for licensing agreements using both the Medicines Patent Pool and C-TAP platform.

Recently, the WHO recommended Roche’s Actemra (tocilizumab) for the treatment of severe COVID-19. Immediately following this recommendation, Doctors Without Borders urged Roche to cease its monopoly on the drug by lowering its price and sharing the drug maker’s technology to improve access.

Roche currently lists Actemra at varying prices across the world. The drug price ranges from $410 in Australia, $646 in India (a country most hard-hit by COVID-19) and up to $3,625 in the U.S. per 600 mg dose. 

“Medical practitioners in many countries in Africa and Latin America, who are grappling with newer and more transmissible variants of coronavirus, are struggling to keep their patients alive,” said Julien Potet, Neglected Tropical Diseases policy advisor at the Access Campaign of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, in a statement. “This drug could become essential for treating people with critical and severe cases of COVID-19 and reduce the need for ventilators and medical oxygen, which are scarce resources in many places.”

Potet added, “Roche must stop following a business-as-usual approach and take urgent steps to make this drug accessible and affordable for everyone who needs it by reducing the price and transferring the technology, know-how, and cell lines to other manufacturers.”

Doctors Without Borders claims the manufacturing cost of tocilizumab is as low as $40 per 400 mg dose. “Given that the manufacturing costs of mAbs are often below $100 per gram when produced on a large-scale, Roche should agree to sell tocilizumab for COVID-19 at a much more affordable price than they currently do,” the organization stated.

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