BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Gilead Sciences <GILD.O> said on Thursday it had agreed to sell Europe up to 500,000 courses of its antiviral drug remdesivir, as the continent shores up supplies of one of only two drugs approved to treat COVID-19 patients ahead of the winter.
The deal will cover purchases of the drug for the next six months for 37 countries: the 27-nation European Union, Britain, six Balkan countries and the other European Economic Area (EEA) countries – Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.
Several European countries have said they are experiencing shortages of the drug, whose global stock has been secured almost entirely by the United States, raising concerns about how to contain a second wave of infections.
New cases have been spiralling in Europe as the coming winter drives more people indoors, with cases soaring in neighbouring countries including Belgium, France and the Netherlands.
Spain, one of the countries with the highest number of infections in Europe, had nearly 10,700 people hospitalised for COVID-19 as of Tuesday.
Payments will be made by the countries that need the drug. The agreement includes an option to extend the time period.
The European Commission, which has overseen joint purchases of vaccines in the EU, agreed only on Friday to top up its initial 30,000 courses of treatment with additional doses to cover about 3,400 patients. A course of treatment covers one person, with an average of six doses.
Gilead said the new agreement replaced the initial deal financed by the Commission’s Emergency Support Instrument and intended to cover from August to October. It said it would begin fulfilling orders from next Monday.
The deal will help ease concerns about availability of the medicine after the company pledged most of its output to its home market over the summer months.
The U.S. drugmaker has expanded production due to soaring demand after research showed it helped shorten hospital recovery times in a clinical trial, and has said it is on track to make more than 2 million courses this year.
Still, the episode has stirred the debate about equitable and cheap access to drugs as the pandemic death toll exceeded one million.
Remdesivir and steroid dexamethasone, which is generic and low cost, are the only authorised drugs to treat COVID-19 in Europe.
Remdesivir is usually administered to severely ill patients requiring supplemental oxygen. This week it has been given also to U.S. President Donald Trump after he tested positive for the virus.
The Commission said it was preparing further joint procurement procedures for equipment needed during the pandemic – vaccine carriers, waste containers, injecting devices, personal protective equipment and anaesthetic consumables.
It said it was also in the final stages of procuring essential intensive care unit medicines. (This story refiles to fix typo in first paragraph)
(Reporting by Marine Strauss and Philip Blenkinsop; Writing by Josephine Mason; Editing by Mark Potter)