Gilead, Merck step in to help India’s drug manufacturers fight surging COVID-19 outbreak

India is in the midst of one of the world’s grimmest COVID-19 outbreaks so far, but for weeks the country has struggled to meet local demand for life-saving drugs and vaccines. Now, drugmakers reliant on India for their own production needs are stepping in to help. 

Gilead Sciences on Monday said it would help local manufacturers boost production of its COVID-19 antiviral drug remdesivir, marketed as Veklury. The drug is authorized in India for hospitalized adults and children with severe disease. Seven companies in India already produce the drug, but they’re not able to keep up with demand amid the crisis.

Gilead plans to donate at least 450,000 vials of remdesivir “to help ease the immediate need for treatment.” Supplies of remdesivir in India have been so tight a thriving black market has cropped up.

For its part, Merck followed suit on Tuesday, saying it had entered into non-exclusive voluntary licensing agreements with five generic manufacturers in India for its oral COVID-19 antiviral therapeutic candidate molnupiravir. The drug, which Merck has developed alongside Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, is currently in phase 3 trials for non-hospitalized patients.

Merck’s agreements—with Cipla, Dr. Reddy’s Laboratorie, Emcure Pharmaceuticals, Hetero Labs and Sun Pharmaceutical—will help accelerate molnupiravir’s availability in India and other low- and middle-income countries once approved by local regulatory authorities, the company said. 

Merck will also donate “more than $5 million worth of oxygen-production equipment, masks, hand sanitizer and financial aid.”

The moves come weeks into India’s battle against a surge of COVID-19 infections that has pushed its hospital systems to the brink. India, one of the globe’s largest manufacturers of drugs and vaccines, has posted more than 300,000 new infections per day, breaking the global record for six consecutive days, The Washington Post reports

On Monday, the nation asked the European Union to immediately send medical supplies, including oxygen additional doses of remdesivir, to help hospitals deluged with patients, Reuters reports

India banned exports of Gilead’s remdesivir and the active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) used to make it earlier this month in order to meet its own demand. Seven companies in the country currently produce Gilead’s antiviral with enough capacity for some 3.9 million units per month.

As part of its latest efforts, Gilead said it will provide those manufacturers with technical assistance, support for the addition of new local manufacturing facilities and active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) to boost remdesivir production. 

However, COVID-19 drugs aren’t the only pandemic resource India’s expecting. The country is anticipating the biggest slice of the U.S. stockpile of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, Reuters reports, citing two Indian government officials. 

The White House said Monday that it plans to begin shipping an initial 10 million doses “in coming weeks” with the remainder of the 60-million-dose stockpile supply exported by June.

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