DOH eyes alternative COVID-19 drugs as Tocilizumab scarce 'til end 2021

Raphael Bosano and Alvin Elchico, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 03 2021 05:00 PM

MANILA – The Department of Health (DOH) on Friday admitted to difficulties in accessing Tocilizumab, used by patients experiencing severe COVID-19, as its supply could remain scarce until the end of the year. 

At least one government hospital in Metro Manila has suspended its dispensing of the experimental drug for COVID-19 due to low supply.

“Kausap na namin ang manufacturers nito, ang Roche Philippines, and they gave us that declaration na hanggang end of the year mukhang mahihirapan na maka-access pa ng gamot na ito,” DOH Spokesperson Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said in a virtual briefing.

(We are talking to one of its manufacturers, Roche Philippines, and they said that its supply would remain low until the end of the year. We think that a lot of people would have difficulty accessing this drug.)

Tocilizumab is the generic name of an anti-inflammatory drug currently used by doctors worldwide to treat severe and critical COVID-19 patients.

In the Philippines, two brands are available, Actemra of Roche and Temziva, distributed by Biocare Life Sciences.

Aside from Roche, Biocare also admitted there is currently a shortage of Tocilizumab.

Because of the limited supply, the DOH is looking into the use of an alternative drug, Barcitinib, which is already being used in other countries, said Vergeire.

It is an anti-inflammatory drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

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But Vergeire said prior to using the drug for COVID-19 patients, it must first pass the scrutiny of experts and be issued with necessary clearances.

“Kailangan mabigyan muna ng [Food and Drug Administration] ng clearance ito, pinagaralan nila. Then kasunod nito 'yung DOH, kung mairerekomenda ito base naman sa pag-aaral ng ating mga eksperto," she explained.

(The FDA should first give clearance to this drug, then the DOH— that is if it gets recommended based on the studies of our experts)

DRUG RETAIL PRICE

Amid Tocilizumab's scarce supply, the health department called on hospitals and pharmacies to not take advantage of the situation by selling the drugs beyond the prescribed maximum drug retail price (MRP).

Based on DOH's Department Circular no. 2021-0291, an 80-milligram (mg) to a 4 milliliters (ml) vial of Tocilizumab may be sold from as low as P7,867.06 to as high as P8,303.57. 

The 400-mg per 20-ml vials of the COVID-19 experimental drug, meanwhile have a suggested retail price of between P25,726.81 and P25,736.61.

Several people have reported being forced to buy overpriced Tocilizumab just to save their loved ones in critical condition due to COVID-19. 

“Itong MRP natin, kailangan sundin ng private and retail outlets. kasama ang mga botika, mga hospital pharmacies ang mga [Health Maintenance Organization]. Kung merong kasama sa retail pricing sa mga over the counter sa supermarkets and convenience stores, kasama din po sila," she said.

(The private and retail outlets should follow our MRP. This includes boutiques, pharmacies, and HMOs. Supermarkets and convenience stores will be included if they are part of our retail pricing.)

Vergeire warned that violators of the maximum drug retail price would face sanctions.

ONLINE SELLING

Private hospitals and the FDA have warned people against entities selling Tocilizumab online.

FDA Director-General Eric Domingo said these vials need a 2- to 8- degree Celsius storage temperature to maintain efficacy.

Domingo added that selling the drug online is illegal, noting that his agency is cracking down on the sale of Tocilizumab through internet platforms.

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