Novartis promises zero profit for 15 symptomatic COVID-19 drugs in low-income countries

Novartis headquarters
Novartis' Sandoz said it will not profit from 15 generics, including dexamethasone, that it's offering to developing countries to manage COVID-19 patients' symptoms. (Novartis)

Novartis’ generic hydroxychloroquine may have little use in COVID-19, but the Swiss pharma still wants to contribute its low-cost drugs in some way in the current fight.

Novartis’ Sandoz unit will offer 15 generic and over-the-counter medicines at zero profit to developing countries during the pandemic, the company said Thursday.

The portfolio covers widely used antibiotics and anti-inflammatory therapies, as well as meds for cardiovascular and gastrointestinal diseases. Most notably, it includes dexamethasone, a corticosteroid that scientists in the U.K. recently found to be able to cut COVID-19 death rates in severely ill patients.

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They will be offered to governments, non-governmental organizations and other institutions in up to 79 countries included on the World Bank’s list of low- and lower-middle income nations.

Sandoz picked the drugs “based on clinical relevance and availability to ensure demand can be met globally,” it said. The goal is to help patients manage early COVID-19 symptoms before they turn into serious complications, Sandoz CEO Richard Saynor said in a statement.

RELATED: New dexamethasone stats suggest lifesaving potential for severe COVID-19 patients

The offer follows Sandoz’s earlier commitment to keep prices stable for a basket of drugs considered essential for treating patients infected with the novel coronavirus. Back then, when COVID-19 was not yet declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, the price stability list included neither hydroxychloroquine nor dexamethasone.

In March, Novartis and several generics makers unveiled plans to donate chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) after President Donald Trump touted the old antimalaria drugs as COVID-19 treatments. For its part, Novartis pledged up to 130 million tablets and soon started shipping a consignment of 30 million doses to the HHS for use in clinical trials.

Fast forward to June, and Novartis, the NIH and the WHO had all ended their HCQ clinical studies in hospitalized COVID-19 patients on the heels of preliminary findings from a large U.K. trial that claimed “no beneficial effect” for the drug.

But the same U.K. COVID-19 clinical project, dubbed Recovery, recorded better outcomes for the dexamethasone arm, leading to a quick approval by the U.K. government. Specifically, treatment of the steroid cut the death rate by 35% in patients on invasive mechanical ventilation, according to non-peer-reviewed results.

RELATED: Novartis, already trialing hydroxychloroquine and Jakafi, plans COVID-19 testing for Ilaris

Though it has ended its own HCQ trial, Novartis said it’s still supporting investigator-initiated trials. The company is also trialing arthritis med Ilaris and Incyte-partnered JAK inhibitor Jakafi in phase 3 trials to test the meds’ ability to control dangerous immune overreactions in serious COVID-19 patients.

What’s more, Novartis has committed to donating $40 million to support communities impacted by the pandemic. It signed on Civica Rx to ramp up supply of six generic injectables used in the acute care settings. AveXis, Novartis’ gene therapy branch, has teamed with Massachusetts Eye and Ear and Massachusetts General Hospital to help make a COVID-19 vaccine candidate called AAVCOVID by offering its know-how in manufacturing adeno-associated virus, a common gene therapy delivery tool.

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