The maker of a drug shown to shorten recovery time for severely ill Covid-19 patients says it will charge US$2340 ($3640) for a typical treatment course for people covered by government health programmes in the United States and other developed countries.

Gilead Sciences announced the price on Monday for remdesivir, and said the price would be US$4861 for patients with private insurance. The amount that patients pay out of pocket depends on insurance, income and other factors.

"We're in uncharted territory with pricing a new medicine, a novel medicine, in a pandemic," Gilead's chief executive, Dan O'Day, told AP.

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"We believe that we had to really deviate from the normal circumstances" and price the drug to ensure wide access rather than based solely on value to patients, he said.

However, the price was swiftly criticised; a consumer group called it "an outrage" because of the amount taxpayers invested toward its development.

The treatment courses that the company has donated to the US and other countries will run out in about a week, and the prices will apply to the drug after that, O'Day said.

The maker of a drug shown to shorten recovery time for severely ill Covid-19 patients says it will charge NZ$3640 for a typical treatment course. Photo / 123rf
The maker of a drug shown to shorten recovery time for severely ill Covid-19 patients says it will charge NZ$3640 for a typical treatment course. Photo / 123rf

In the US, federal health officials have allocated the limited supply to states, but that agreement with Gilead will end after September. They said on Monday that the government has secured more than 500,000 additional courses that Gilead will produce starting in July to supply to hospitals through September.

"We should have sufficient supply ... but we have to make sure it's in the right place at the right time," O'Day said

In 127 poor or middle-income countries, Gilead is allowing generic makers to supply the drug; two countries are doing that for around US$934 per treatment course.

Remdesivir's price has been highly anticipated since it became the first medicine to show benefit in the pandemic, which has killed more than half a million people globally in six months.

The drug interferes with the coronavirus' ability to copy its genetic material. In a US government-led study, remdesivir shortened recovery time by 31 per cent - 11 days on average versus 15 days for those given just usual care. It had not improved survival according to preliminary results after two weeks of followup; results after four weeks are expected soon.

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The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review, a nonprofit group that analyses drug prices, said remdesivir would be cost-effective in a range of US$7000 to US$7915 if it saved lives. But recent news that a cheap steroid called dexamethasone improves survival means remdesivir should be priced between US$3890 and US$4360.

- AP