Sanofi CEO: Amid COVID-19 supply push, one fever means 'maybe a half dozen' workers off the job

Sanofi, the maker of a branded hydroxychloroquine drug called Plaquenil, is producing as much as it can to help healthcare systems fighting the pandemic, CEO Paul Hudson told Reuters. But amid the manufacturing push, some employees are having to step aside if they show symptoms.

The company decided to “overproduce” drugs but is operating just under max capacity, Hudson added. That’s because the company sends workers who show symptoms—plus those who have come into contact with them—home for two weeks.

“One person getting a temperature means we lose maybe a half dozen people,” Hudson told Reuters.

On hydroxychloroquine, the highly touted drug that's taken center stage for its potential to treat patients with COVID-19, Sanofi is making as much as it possibly can, Hudson told the news service. The company started boosting production in February on the heels of Chinese data.

Sanofi has gotten requests for the drug from countries around the globe, and it's working with other suppliers to ensure even distribution, he added. Sanofi has the capacity to make millions of doses, according to the report. 

As of Friday, global confirmed COVID-19 infections topped 1 million, and deaths passed 54,000. 

RELATED: Unlike FDA, European regulators refuse to clear chloroquine for COVID-19 without data 

The pandemic has been playing out for months, and during that time, hydroxychloroquine—plus an older version, chloroquine—have garnered significant attention thanks to early anecdotal reports about their effects on COVID-19 patients and praise from President Donald Trump. The drugs have been approved for decades to treat malaria, lupus and arthritis.

Over the weekend, the FDA gave the drugs an emergency clearance, but European regulators this week decided against an approval until seeing more data. Some confusion and skepticism has stemmed from preliminary research in France, but the picture around the drugs in COVID-19 continues to evolve.  

This week, researchers in Wuhan, China, published results (PDF) from a controlled study in 62 patients. The entire group received standard care, while half of the group also received hydroxychloroquine for five days.  

In patients who received hydroxychloroquine, the time to clinical recovery and body temperature recovery were “significantly shortened," and those patients stopped coughing sooner, the authors said.  

Only four patients progressed to severe illness; all were in the control group. Two patients in the hydroxychloroquine group experienced mild adverse reactions. The authors wrote that the drug “could significantly shorten [time to clinical recovery] and promote the absorption of pneumonia” in patients with COVID-19. More research is needed, the authors say.  

“Considering that there is no better option at present, it is a promising practice to apply HCQ to COVID-19 under reasonable management,” the authors wrote. “However, large-scale clinical and basic research is still needed to clarify its specific mechanism and to continuously optimize the treatment plan.”  

The result will “send a ripple of excitement out through the treating community,” Vanderbilt University infectious disease expert William Schaffner told The New York Times. 

RELATED: Novartis, Mylan and Teva to supply tens of millions of chloroquine tablets to fight COVID-19 

Demand for hydroxychloroquine has grown dramatically in recent weeks as a result of the attention. In a note Thursday, Bernstein analyst Ronny Gal wrote that the prescriptions for the drug had grown 500% in the last two weeks of March.

Drugmakers have been stepping up to provide supply. Novartis pledged a donation of up to 130 million global doses pending regulatory approvals. Mylan is ramping up production, and Teva and Amneal have each committed to making donations as well.