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Roche Actemra studies against COVID-19 could be done this month: NZZ

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Swiss drugmaker Roche at its headquarters in Basel, Switzerland, January 30, 2020. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann/File Photo

ZURICH (Reuters) - Roche could complete studies of its medicine Actemra in COVID-19 patients as early as this month, the head of the Swiss drugmaker’s U.S.-based Genentech unit told a Swiss newspaper, as it seeks to repurpose the rheumatoid arthritis drug.

“We’re testing all over the world and we’ve reached half of the planned 330 patients, perhaps it will be more,” said Alexander Hardy, Genentech’s head, in the interview with the Neue Zuercher Zeitung published on Wednesday.

“We’ll be finished in May or June. Parallel to that, we have 15 control studies worldwide. There are many questions: Does Actemra help reduce the need for ventilators? When should Actemra be administered? And which patient groups?”

Hardy acknowledged success would not solve the pandemic, but said it could help reduce mortality and health problems and take the heat off intensive care units where ventilators in some regions are in high demand and where many COVID-19 patients who eventually need breathing assistance die.

Should the anti-inflammation drug Actemra -- beyond arthritis, it is also used for cancer patients to counteract massive, life-threatening immune system reactions called cytokine storms -- turn out to help, Hardy said Roche has boosted its production from several hundred thousand doses to more than a million.

“We’re taking a big risk and expect that the studies will be positive,” Hardy told the newspaper. “If that’s not the case, then we’re going to have a surplus.”

In the former case, he sees demand for Actemra for COVID-19 peaking over the next 12-18 months until a vaccine is available.

Reporting by John Miller; Editing by Michael Shields