Gilead won the first Food and Drug Administration (FDA) emergency authorization for a COVID-19 treatment in May. Now, the biotech giant says, it will soon begin clinical trials for a different version of the same experimental drug, remdesivir, which might make it easier to administer outside of a hospital or ICU wing.
In its current form, remdesivir has to be taken intravenously over the course of multiple days. A number of studies sponsored by Gilead and the federal government have shown that in severe COVID-19 patients, the antiviral can reduce how long patients have to stay in the hospital. That’s critical for patients since an inpatient hospital stay can be extremely expensive—even if Gilead doesn’t make too much money off individual patients for its drug (if and when it’s officially approved). The price of the treatment and the price of the hospital stay are two separate matters.
That’s one reason why Gilead’s latest move could be important for both the coronavirus’s effect on the health system and treating the disease in patients with less severe forms of COVID. The company announced Monday that it will soon begin trials to test out an inhaled version, rather than an IV, of remdesivir.
“An inhaled formulation would be given through a nebulizer, which could potentially allow for easier administration outside the hospital, at earlier stages of disease,” wrote Gilead CEO Daniel O’Day in an open letter. “That could have significant implications in helping to stem the tide of the pandemic.” Theoretically, the treatment could be done at a doctor’s office or even at a clinic right after testing positive.
As public health officials such as Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), have stated, remdesivir shouldn’t be considered a cure. It’s more of a stopgap measure that can buy the medical system time as more treatments and coronavirus vaccines are developed.
Studies have shown that intravenous remdesivir reduced patients’ recovery time by about four days. But the trials of inhaled remdesivir are aimed at expanding the population of COVID patients that can be treated, ideally treating patients before their symptoms decline. “Our hope is that earlier intervention could help patients avoid hospitalization altogether,” says O’Day.
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