Drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and COVID-19 in short supply

A drug widely used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis is out of stock due to an increase in hospitalizations linked to COVID-19, affecting patients in the United States and Utah. (Adam Sotelo, KSL-TV)

SALT LAKE CITY – A drug widely used to treat rheumatoid arthritis is out of stock due to an increase in hospitalizations linked to COVID-19, affecting patients in the United States and Utah.

Sharon Greenwood of Utah County was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when she was just 12 years old.

“There is no cure,” Greenwood said. “Even if (arthritis) gets into your jaw, then eating is a problem because you can’t chew.”

Decades later and a dozen failed treatments, Greenwood finally has a drug that works for her – tocilizumab, known by the brand name Actemra. She has been using the treatment for 10 years.

“Without it, the pain is completely debilitating,” Greenwood explained.

However, Greenwood says his monthly salary is now out of reach.

“I went to the hospital for treatment on Wednesday,” Greenwood said. That’s when his nurse at Intermountain American Fork Hospital told him there was a major shortage.

“Apparently just that morning the drug had been called. Nurses were told not to use it for anyone because it was being confiscated and collected to be sent to a central location,” Greenwood said. .

Greenwood said she was one of the last rheumatoid arthritis patients to receive their treatment.

“The nurse apparently had my medicine on hand and the pharmacist said ‘No, we have to take it’ and she said ‘No, our patient is waiting here,'” she said.

Greenwood said nurses told him the drug would be reserved for COVID-19 and possibly cancer patients, as the delta variant is fueling an increase in virus cases and hospitalizations.

“They told me that they hope to have more in about 4-6 weeks, which will be around the time I have my next appointment, but there is no guarantee,” said Greenwood, explaining that she was worried that she might not get her next treatment.

On June 24, the FDA released a authorization for emergency use of Actemra to treat patients with COVID-19 in hospitals, including adults and children 2 years of age and older.

“The EUA is based on the results of four randomized, controlled studies that evaluated Actemra for the treatment of COVID-19 in more than 5,500 hospital patients. The results of these studies suggest that Actemra may improve outcomes in patients receiving corticosteroids and requiring supplemental oxygen or respiratory support, ”said a spokesperson for Genentech, the US maker of Actemra.

Genentech is the sole manufacturer and supplier of the drug in the United States Its parent company, Roche, manufactures the drug outside of the United States.

However, despite efforts to increase production, Genentech confirmed in a written response to KSL, “they are temporarily out of stock“of the drug in the United States since August 16.

A company spokesperson added that they expect to receive planned replenishments by the end of August. However, they warned, if the pandemic continues to spread at its current rate, there could be more shortages in the weeks and months to come.

“The dramatic emergence of the delta variant of COVID-19, along with the unexpected slowdown in vaccination rates in the United States, has led to an extremely high incidence of COVID-19-related hospitalizations in some areas of the country. This new wave of the pandemic has led Genentech to experience unprecedented demand for Actemra IV – well over 400% of pre-COVID levels in the past two weeks alone – and it continues to rise, ”said Lindsey Mathias, Senior Director of Corporate Relations at Genentech.

In the meantime, Greenwood said his doctor and nurses told him the drug was in storage and the rationed priority was going to COVID-19 patients.

“For me it’s about quality of life. But for them it’s about life and death, and so it has to be addressed to them first because they need it the most,” said Greenwood.

Nonetheless, Greenwood said the situation underscores the impact of others choosing not to be vaccinated, as experts at Intermountain previously said 90% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are not vaccinated.

“Unless you have rheumatoid arthritis, you may never know that choosing not to be vaccinated affects people like me,” Greenwood said. “I hope people will choose wisely.”

The World Health Organization, in collaboration with UnitAid, issued a statement last week, calling on the company to ensure equal access to the drug and look for ways to increase global supplies.

KSL’s Garna Mejia is also in touch with Intermountain Healthcare, the healthcare provider for Greenwood, for more information on what exactly the supply shortage looks like in Utah. An update is expected later this week.

The most recent information on Actemra’s US supply can be found here, while information on global sourcing can be found here.

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