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Putting A Price On COVID-19 Treatment Remdesivir


The world is eagerly waiting to see whether an experimental drug works as a treatment for COVID-19. And if it does work, the questions will be, how much will it cost, and who will get it? NPR pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin is here to talk to us about that. Good morning.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, Sydney, you've been reporting on this drug. Can you remind us what it is and what we know about it?

LUPKIN: Sure. So the drug is called Remdesivir. It's made by a company called Gilead Sciences. And it's something that you would get intravenously in the hospital. It's just one of the experimental drugs being tested as a potential treatment. And it's the furthest one along in that process. The latest study results coming out of the NIH show that the drug reduced coronavirus patients' recovery time by about four days. But whether the drug helps patients survive coronavirus is not clear at this point.

Another thing - it's not FDA-approved yet. But because there's a pandemic, it's been granted something called emergency use authorization, allowing it to be given to certain patients.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So who are those patients?

LUPKIN: People who are really sick that require oxygen. There's a good chance they're on a ventilator or in an ICU. It's not for everyone, at least not right now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: With that said, is there enough to go around? It's a new drug. And the company just got this permission.

LUPKIN: There is a limited supply. The company is donating the first 1.5 million doses. That's expected to last until at least early summer as far as we know. But it has to ramp up manufacturing to meet future need. That's one of the reasons the company says it has to figure out what to charge for Remdesivir. It costs money to ramp up manufacturing. And they need to be able to pay for them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what are they going to charge? I mean, new drugs can be very expensive these days.

LUPKIN: The company has not said what it plans to charge for Remdesivir or when it will announce that price. Here's CEO Daniel O'Day at Gilead's annual meeting this week.


DANIEL O'DAY: Going forward, we will develop an approach that is guided by the principles of affordability and access.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So he really didn't say.

LUPKIN: No. But he did acknowledge that Gilead is in a unique position and has to price the drug in a way that is sustainable for the company and its shareholders.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. So what are people saying the companies should be charging?

LUPKIN: That's a complicated question. There's already a ton of pressure on Gilead to set a low price for Remdesivir. Members of Congress are saying, look. Taxpayers have already invested a significant amount of money in Remdesivir. And they deserve a fair price. One influential drug price research group says that the drug only costs Gilead about $10 to make a full 10-day course of this drug. But this group estimates that what the drug is worth to the patient, to society is way higher - really, a few thousand dollars. And there's some debate about whether that's too high or too low. Ultimately, the number Gilead comes up with is really important beyond just this drug. Craig Garthwaite, a health economist at Northwestern University, says a generous price can incentivize companies to work on the next coronavirus drug or vaccine. But a low price can do the opposite.

CRAIG GARTHWAITE: The thing that would worry me the most is that we're somehow telling people that if you take the risky bet to try and, you know, go after a coronavirus cure and you do it, you're not going to get paid.

LUPKIN: He thinks a generous price would send a message to drug companies to work as hard as they can on new therapies and vaccines because they'll be compensated for them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. That was NPR pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin. Thank you so much.

LUPKIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sydney Lupkin is the pharmaceuticals correspondent for NPR.