As queues outside government counters get longer, patients in need of the antiviral drug are being asked to buy the drug from government healthcare facilities or the TNMSC.

An old man with white hair poses for the camera after procuring some vials of Remdesivir in Chennai.
news COVID-19 Wednesday, April 28, 2021 - 14:29

Chennai is seeing another kind of spike in the last few days: serpentine queues outside Kilpauk Medical College Hospital (KMC) violating social distancing norms, patients and their families calling several pharmacies and distributors asking if they can help, and calls for help on social media – all seeking Remdesivir, the antiviral drug being prescribed by doctors across India for patients hospitalised due to COVID-19.

With private hospitals asking patients to source the drug individually despite the government asking the hospitals to arrange for it directly via the government helpline 104, the demand for Remdesivir has increased manifold in Tamil Nadu in the past few days. On Monday, the state government opened a centre at KMC to sell Remdesivir to patients with valid documents. Soon enough, videos emerged of massive crowds at the counters.

Amidst the desperation for the antiviral, more and more doctors and experts are reiterating that the drug’s use for COVID-19 patients is vastly overstated, and asking patients to not worry if they are not able to source the drug.

Demand spike, supply slump

Tamil Nadu reported 15,830 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and the total number of persons receiving treatment for the disease stood at 1,08,855. With 31,136 active cases, Chennai continues to stay at the top of the list of districts in the state. In sync with the skyrocketing cases, the demand for the antiviral has also shot up.

Hundreds of Twitter users have been bombarding the platform with hapless cries for leads on procuring Remdesivir in Chennai. Most of the users complained that the drug was not in stock in any pharmacy and pleaded to the authorities to make the stock available at the earliest. The move to set up an exclusive counter at KMC was in response to the messages about a thriving black market for the drug in Chennai, and skyrocketing prices for the same.

According to an April 21-directive from the Union government, Remdesivir shall be distributed only through the state governments or approved distribution channels. To this effect, Cipla, a leading manufacturer of Remdesivir in India, announced that it will supply Remdesivir only to government and private COVID hospitals recognised by the state drug control authorities. “We request you to contact the relevant State FDA authorities and hospitals for sourcing Remdesivir,” the company stated.

If that’s the case, why are private hospitals that treat COVID-19 patients in Chennai pushing patients to procure the drug for them?

“I really don’t know where the supply chain jam is happening,” Vaishnavi Jayakumar, co-founder of The Banyan says. Vaishnavi handles hundreds of requests of help for COVID-19 patients every day on her social media and works closely with the authorities in the Tamil Nadu government.

“Unless the Drugs Control department comes up with a system in which private hospitals can directly procure from them, which I don't think has been done so far, the Tamil Nadu government will have to continue giving away the stock of TNMSC. Now there is an interesting situation in which if one is in a government hospital you have access to everything. But if you are in a private hospital, you will have to run around and search for Remdesivir and other things,” she explains.

Irrational desperation

According to several global experts, Remdesivir does not provide any major benefit to patients hospitalised due to COVID-19. However, there is some consensus that the drug has the potential to reduce a patient’s hospital stay by a few days.

Dr N Sridhar, Consultant Intensivist and Head of Critical Care in Kauvery Hospital, Chennai tells TNM that Remdesivir is not a life-saving drug. “It has shown to lessen the number of days a patient spends in hospital by three days. And it is effective only in patients who need oxygen support but are not critical. No studies so far have shown Remdesivir to be a life-saving drug,” he adds. Pointing out that doctors mostly ask for it to give some comfort to their patients, Dr Sridhar adds that patients’ families need not panic if they are asked to get Remdesivir for their kin.

Echoing Dr N Sridhar is Tamil Nadu’s Director of Public Health Dr TS Selvavinayagam who, in a video released on Tuesday evening, reiterated that Remdesivir is not a life-saving drug. “As I said earlier, it is not going to prevent you from mortality. At the most, it will only reduce the duration of your stay (in the hospital),” he said. Adding that private hospitals should refer patients in need of Remdesivir to government institutions or Tamil Nadu Medical Services Corporation (TNMSC) counters with the required documents, Selvavinayagam said that the government will definitely be able to support such requests. 

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