Scientists on Wednesday announced the first effective treatment against the coronavirus — an experimental drug that can speed the recovery of COVID-19 patients — in a major medical advance that came as the economic gloom caused by the scourge deepened in the U.S. and Europe.
The U.S. government said it is working to make the antiviral medication remdesivir available to patients as quickly as possible. Stocks surged around the world on the news, with the Dow Jones Industrial average climbing more than 550 points, or over 2%, in the afternoon.
“What it has proven is that a drug can block this virus,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious-disease expert. “This will be the standard of care.”
It looks like it would take some ingenuity to ramp up production if this proves to be effective on a wide scale.
And when it comes to remdesivir, experts say Gilead might not have been inclined, or even had the time, to make the process as efficient as it could be. Gilead developed the compound during the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa and sped it along with the goal of testing it before the outbreak waned. The process likely reflects the anticipated demand for an Ebola treatment: the 2014 Ebola outbreak saw 29,000 cases over 2.5 years; the current coronavirus pandemic is approaching 2.5 million cases in under 5 months.
As the scope of the pandemic widens, Gilead has been open about the challenges of manufacturing the drug. The firm says it typically takes 9 to 12 months to make an antiviral like remdesivir, but that since January it has shrunk the timeline to 6 to 8 months. “We continue to work on optimizing the chemical synthesis processes,” the company states.
In a public communication in early April, CEO Daniel O’Day outlined a series of measures Gilead was taking to increase access to remdesivir. At the time, the company said it had on hand enough active ingredient to create about 1.5 million doses, enough for roughly 140,000 treatment courses, based on a 10-day regimen. The company has been working to increase both internal capacity and external partnerships to generate an additional 500,000 courses by October, 1 million courses by the end of the year, and, if needed, several million courses in 2021.