Roche warns of global Actemra shortage as delta variant drives huge spike in demand for COVID-19 patients

Roche’s arthritis drug Actemra has quickly found itself at the forefront of the pandemic fight for severely ill COVID-19 patients. But with the limelight has also come “unprecedented” demand, and the drugmaker is having a hard time keeping up.

The latest wave of infections and hospitalizations, driven by the highly infectious delta variant first found in India, has catapulted Actemra requests "well over" 400% compared with pre-COVID levels just in the last two weeks alone, Roche’s Genentech said in a statement on Monday. 

That’s spurred a global shortage for the rheumatoid arthritis drug, also known as tocilizumab, which could exacerbate in the coming weeks or months ahead if the pandemic continues to wear on. Despite the widely deployed COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S., CDC data shows hospitalizations are skyrocketing back toward the calamitous levels last reported in the spring.

Genentech doesn’t have any 200 mg and 400 mg Actemra vials available as of Monday, and it expects the same fate for its 80 mg supply by the end of the week, the company said. While more shipments are due by the end of August, Genentech warned that it may not have enough supply to match new orders for weeks if the virus continues spreading at its current pace. 

RELATED: China turns Roche arthritis drug Actemra against COVID-19 in new treatment guidelines

Doctors have been using anti-IL-6 meds alongside corticosteroids in hospitalized patients since Chinese doctors first proposed the treatment regimen early last year. Instead of attacking the virus directly, like Gilead Sciences’ Veklury does, anti-inflammation drugs like Actemra target the uncontrolled immune response that can lead to life-threatening outcomes. 

While Actemra’s clinical merits against the coronavirus have been mixed in various studies, the drug has slowly racked up support from the likes of the World Health Organization and U.S. FDA.

The treatment, joining the likes of Eli Lilly’s anti-inflammatory med Olumiant, is intended for patients who require some form of oxygen support. Across the pond, Europe’s drug regulator announced Monday that it’s also looking into Actemra as a possible treatment for severely ill COVID-19 patients. 

When Genentech scored its U.S. emergency authorization in June, CEO Alexander Hardy said the company would work with partners to enable access to the drug for all patients.

RELATED: Roche, Sanofi arthritis drugs score WHO backing for severe COVID-19, but agency echoes calls for lower prices

The company said in its update on Monday that it still has available inventory for Actemra delivered subcutaneously, “though the supply situation continues to evolve.” The drug is administered through an infusion for COVID-19 patients. 

Following its pandemic boost, Actemra sales jumped 32% in 2020 to $3.12 billion. The drug has already reaped CHF 1.64 billion ($1.79 billion) in 2021, up 17% compared with the same period a year prior, according to a Roche half-year report.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify a prior statement by Genentech CEO Alexander Hardy about Actemra supply.