June 23, 2020 / 12:57 PM / 17 days ago

South Africa's Aspen could supply 10 million dexamethasone pills in COVID-19 crisis

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African pharmaceutical major Aspen could provide 10 million dexamethasone tablets within a month, Chief Executive Stephen Saad said on Tuesday after the World Health Organisation cautioned about the drug’s supply.

FILE PHOTO: An ampoule of Dexamethasone is seen during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in this picture illustration taken June 17, 2020. REUTERS/Yves Herman/File Photo

Results from a study showed the steroidal drug reduced death rates by about a third in severely ill, hospitalised COVID-19 patients, University of Oxford scientists said last week, calling it a major breakthrough.

The results drew scepticism and optimism alike and put the focus on the availability of dexamethasone. It is at the moment mainly used to fight inflammation in other diseases.

“We would look to ramp up further should there be a need for additional product,” Aspen CEO Saad said, without indicating current production volumes.

As South Africa’s biggest supplier of drugs, with a 22% market share in sub-Saharan Africa, Aspen makes both the injectable and tablet forms of dexamethasone.

The South African government asked Aspen to source the drug for overall usage in the domestic market and the African continent to help guard against the risk of scarcity if it is approved for COVID-19 treatments.

South Africa’s health ministry last week said the government had a stock of 300,000 ampoules of dexamethasone.

Aspen had asked the government to indicate required volumes across the continent, Saad said. “Once they give us a sense, we can work out the supply,” he added, while saying that Aspen had received orders from WHO, UNICEF and other agencies as well.

UK’s Hikma Pharmaceuticals , with a major supply base in the United States, also said that it has seen demand for dexamethasone increase “substantially.”

“We currently have sufficient ingredients on hand and manufacturing capacity to supply the U.S. market with dexamethasone for at least the near future,” a spokeswoman said.

But future supply will depend on the amount of demand, availability of raw materials and the need for other essential medicines supplied by Hikma, she added, declining to give further details on production.

WHO issued a guidance last week saying dexamethasone should be reserved for use in severely ill and critical patients.

“A prospective meta-analysis is underway, including results of other (smaller) trials. The results will be the basis of any updates to WHO guidance,” spokesman Hedinn Halldorsson said.

Reporting by Promit Mukherjee in Johannesburg, Pushkala Aripaka in Bengaluru and Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Jason Neely, David Goodman and Mark Heinrich

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