Remdesivir can save lives and shorten time in ICU, particularly in SA, researchers say

  • Remdesivir, previously developed for the Ebola virus, has proven to decrease Covid-19 mortality
  • The drug, which was recently bought up by the US, is manufactured by Gilead Science
  • However, a generic can benefit SA by preventing deaths and freeing up ICU beds 

Remdesivir has recently made headlines – it was approved as one of the first official treatments for Covid-19, which was followed by news that the United States had bought up the world’s entire supply.

Recent research by the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) suggested that remdesivir can reduce the Covid-19 mortality rate by as much as 30% and slash the time a patient needs in ICU, which can help overburdened healthcare systems.

South African-focused research

This peer-reviewed study was published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases and estimated that it could increase the number of Covid-19 patients treated in South Africa by more than 50%, which could save as many as 6 862 lives a month as our cases peak, according to a news release.

This equates to a total of almost 13 647 avoidable South African deaths by December 2020.

Not only is the reduced number of deaths a benefit of remdesivir, but the significant reduction in patients who need ICU can also greatly benefit our already strained health system, especially when we look at headlines suggesting that Gauteng and the Eastern Cape are rapidly running out of hospital beds.

"There are many countries with limited ICU capacity that could benefit from this double impact on mortality," says study lead author Dr Brooke Nichols, assistant professor of global health at BUSPH in the news release.

How was the research performed?

Dr Nichols and her team used a South African National Covid-19 Epidemiology model to investigate the three to six months during which the South African cases will spike and the 3 450 available ICU beds will simply not be enough.

If those South African patients in ICU were able to be treated with Remdesivir, not only will it increase their chances of survival, but their ICU stay would be shorter, making room for more patients.

They estimated that the number of patients who will be able to receive treatment in ICUs between June and December 2020 will increase from between 23 443 and 32 284 patients to between 36 383 and 47 820.

What is remdesivir?

Since early in the outbreak, researchers have been investigating the possibility of treating Covid-19 with remdesivir, an antiviral drug that was specifically developed to treat the Ebola virus. When that didn’t work, pharmaceutical company Gilead started conducting research on the effect of remdesivir on the coronaviruses that caused the diseases SARS and MERS.

As these diseases ceased to spread, there were no more patients to conduct clinical trials on – but when Covid-19 made its appearance, the researchers retrieved the previous data.

Some research revealed that remdesivir might not have the exact same positive results on Covid-19 that it had on SARS and MERS. 

But this could be because it was early in the research and experts were sceptical about the outcomes of a clinical trial. When a small number of individuals respond well to a treatment, it doesn’t mean that it will work in larger groups made up of members of different population groups.

Will it be available in South Africa?

But now, months later, European authorities have given the go-ahead for remdesivir to be used as a treatment. There are, however, concerns because the US bought up nearly all of Gilead’s stock, potentially causing supply problems in the rest of the world.

According to a report in Medical Brief, the Indian Drug manufacturer Cipla is set to bring its generic version of Gilead’s remdesivir to South Africa within the next few weeks.

Gilead, which holds the patent for the drug, has now restricted sales to the US for the next three months and granted non-exclusive manufacturing license to several generic pharmaceutical companies, which includes Cipla – a company which is well-established in South Africa.

READ | Remdesivir backed to be first treatment for Covid-19 in Europe 

READ | How an Ebola drug might fight Covid-19

READ | All about dexamethasone, which researchers say is a 'breakthrough' Covid-19 treatment

Image credit: Getty Images 

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