Aspen CEO working to ensure supply of promising COVID-19 medicine

Aspen Pharmacare Holdings Ltd. is working to ensure it can manage demand for a generic anti-inflammatory drug that was shown to improve survival in Covid-19 patients.

Africa’s biggest drugmaker has set up a team to assess how much of the 60-year-old drug dexamethasone it can supply and by when, Chief Executive Officer Stephen Saad said on Wednesday. The low-cost, widely used medicine — also made by rivals including Mylan NV and Merck & Co. — is the first treatment to show life-saving promise for those very ill with the disease, according to data released Tuesday by the University of Oxford.

Saad said he was as surprised by the news as anyone.

“I was looking at CNN and I could see a product on the screen, and it was one of ours,” Saad said in an interview. “Demand needs to be managed in a carefully calculated way.”

Deaths among patients who needed breathing assistance were lower over a period of four weeks when they received the treatment, Oxford researchers said. Aspen, based in Durban, South Africa, makes the injectable and tablet forms of the medicine, both in its own factories and through outsourcing. The company is now “stress-testing all of our supply chain,” Saad said.

Aspen’s stock has been energized by the news, climbing 16% since the findings were released to the highest levels since November 2018. The shares traded up 6.1% for the day at 162.27 rand as of 9:40 a.m. in Johannesburg on Thursday.

Aspen needs to be able to assess the genuine demand so it can decide whether to dedicate a greater proportion of manufacturing to this drug versus others, Saad said.

“It’s a very moving target at the moment,” he said. “It becomes quite chaotic and panicky around the world with these things.”​​

Aspen is one of several companies to make the generic drug, which U.K. officials said will cost less than 5 pounds ($6) for a course of treatment.

Dexamethasone is used to treat a range of ailments including rheumatism, asthma and allergies, and also to help cancer patients manage the nausea triggered by chemotherapy. The Oxford researchers said the drug may help coronavirus patients cope with a powerful overreaction of the immune system.

Britain has stockpiled more than 200,000 courses of dexamethasone after spotting its potential, according to U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

“Between all the global sites, we certainly have got access to decent volumes that will be very helpful on a global basis,” Saad said. “But we’ve got to find if we have all the components that are required.”

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Aspen CEO working to ensure supply of promising COVID-19 medicine