Remdesivir is NOT a COVID-19 Vaccine; Not for Use Only in Africa

In the last few days, claims that the anti-viral medication, Remdesivir, is a COVID-19 vaccine being tested only in Africa has emerged.

This claim which surfaced few months after Ghana recorded its first COVID-19 case has re-emerged after popular Ghanaian comedian Derrick Kwabena Bonney (DKB) posted photos of the Remdesivir drug on his social media pages on January 13, 2021, with a narrative suggesting that the medication is one of the newly developed COVID-19 vaccines that is being tested in only Africa and not in America and Europe.

“Why are these particular vaccines set of COVID VACCINES only meant for Africa and shouldn’t be used on people in Canada, USA and Europe? Are we not human like they are in those countries too? Or these particular vaccines need a work permit there? Black people wake up!” DKB’s post said.

A screenshot from DKB’s post on Facebook.

Fact-Check Ghana has verified the claim and concludes that remdesivir is not a COVID-19 vaccine and not only in use in Africa. The team further presents some key details about the drug below.

Not a COVID-19 Vaccine

Remdesivir (sometimes sold under the brand name Veklury) is an anti-viral drug developed by the American biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences. The drug which was originally developed in 2009 to treat hepatitis C and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) was later repurposed and studied as a potential treatment for Ebola virus disease and Marburg virus infections.

In October 2015, the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) announced preclinical results that remdesivir had blocked the Ebola virus in Rhesus monkeys. As a result, it was recommended for further development for the treatment of Ebola virus in Africa.

In 2020, the drug proved effective in stopping the replication of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It was therefore approved and authorised for emergency use in October 2020 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of COVID-19.

The drug, Veklury, was also authorised in Europe for the “treatment of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in adults and adolescents (aged 12 years and older with body weight at least 40 kg) with pneumonia requiring supplemental oxygen”.

It must, however, be noted that the drug was only approved for usage in the event that one has contracted and was sick from COVID-19 but not as a prevention medication or vaccine against the virus.

Why is it only in use in Africa?

In 2020, after remdesivir proved effective in fighting COVID-19, Gilead Sciences signed a licensing agreement with a number of pharmaceutical manufacturers based in Egypt, India and Pakistan to further produce remdesivir generic (versions of the remdesivir drug containing same chemical substance but with different patents) and expand its supply. In a statement published on the company’s website, Gilead Sciences indicated that the remdesivir drugs produced by these generic pharmaceutical companies were to be restricted in certain specific countries.

“The agreements allow the companies – Cipla Ltd.; Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories Ltd.; Eva Pharma; Ferozsons Laboratories; Hetero Labs Ltd.; Jubilant Lifesciences; Mylan; Syngene, a Biocon company; and Zydus Cadila Healthcare Ltd. – to manufacture remdesivir for distribution in 127 countries. The countries consist of nearly all low-income and lower-middle income countries, as well as several upper-middle- and high-income countries that face significant obstacles to healthcare access,” the statement said.

Thus, in the photo that comedian DKB posted on his social media page, the remdesivir generic was with the brand name ‘Cipremi’, manufactured by Cipla Limited in India and is to be used specifically in countries in Africa, mostly consisting of low- and middle-income countries, in accordance with agreement with the originator company, Gilead Sciences.

The rationale behind the limitation of the usage of drug in low- and middle-income countries is that generic drugs are sold at significantly lower prices than their branded equivalents produced by the originator companies. This is because the generic companies incur fewer costs (only production cost without costs like drug discovery and drug development).  Allowing the generic products to be distributed beyond the specific countries would disrupt the markets against the originator company and ensure the generic companies make abnormal profits.

Used in Europe Too

As already indicated above, the remdesivir drug is being used across the world including the US, Europe, India, Japan and some other countries in Asia.

In July 2020, the European Union (EU) signed a €63 million contract with Gilead Science to make remdisivir available in its 27 member states. Stella Kyriakides, the EU Commissioner of Food and Health Safety, said the medication will be provided to 30,000 patients with severe symptoms of Covid-19.

“A contract has been signed yesterday, less than a month after the authorisation of Remdesivir, which will allow the delivery of treatments from early August for thousands of patients. The Commission is leaving no stone unturned in its efforts to secure access to safe and efficient treatments, and is supporting the development of vaccines against coronavirus,” the Commissioner said.

In summary, while remdesivir is a medication associated with COVID-19, it is only used in disease’s treatment (post infection) and not as a preventive medication or a vaccine (pre-infection). Also, while specific generic remdesivir is limited to be it used only in Africa and other developing countries, the drug is equally used across the world including the US and Europe.

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