South Korea to start talks on COVID-19 drug remdesivir purchases in August

FILE PHOTO: Gilead Sciences Inc pharmaceutical company is seen during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in California

By Sangmi Cha

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea has started distributing stocks of the COVID-19 treatment remdesivir that have been donated by Gilead Sciences Inc and plans to begin talks to purchase more supplies in August, its disease control agency said on Wednesday.

It is the first country to disclose a timeline for talks with Gilead. The drugmaker said this week it has priced remdesivir at $390 per vial in developed countries and agreed to allocate nearly all of its supply of the drug to the United States over the next three months.

One of the few treatments shown to alter the course of COVID-19, remdesivir is expected to be in high demand. The intravenously administered medicine has won emergency-use authorisation in several countries and full approval in Japan after a clinical trial showed it helped shorten hospital stays.

Only patients severely ill with COVID-19 are eligible for remdesivir and South Korea currently has 33 such patients, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said.

KCDC director Jeong Eun-kyeong told a briefing that patients who developed symptoms in less than 10 days and were suffering from pneumonia and a shortage of oxygen would be considered eligible. A domestic panel of experts has found that anti-viral drugs like remdesivir are more effective if given in the early stages of the disease, she added.

The KCDC did not disclose how many doses have been donated by the U.S. firm.

South Korea will consider whether remdesivir should be covered by national health insurance after the purchase negotiations in August, said Jeong.

Based on current treatment patterns, a course of remdesivir equates to $2,340 per patient.

South Korea has been battling small but steady outbreaks of the new coronavirus, with 51 new cases reported as of Tuesday, bringing the country's total to 12,850 cases with 282 deaths.

(Reporting by Sangmi Cha; Editing by Miyoung Kim and Edwina Gibbs)