By Emma Koehn
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Australia is facing shortages of a rheumatoid arthritis drug that has been used to treat COVID-19 overseas, with supply expected to be constrained into next year.
Pharmaceuticals giant Roche has warned the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) that the pandemic has restricted supply of a variety of medicines under the brand name Actemra.
Actemra is used to treat a conditions including giant cell arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as cytokine release syndrome, a systemic inflammatory disease which can be prompted by some cancer treatments.
Actemra has also been in the headlines for its potential use in COVID-19 patients.
Last month the United States’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allowed Actemra to be used by adults and children who had been hospitalised with coronavirus. The drug does not directly target the virus but instead has been given emergency approval to be used as a method of reducing inflammation in patients that are struggling to fight the disease.
Two weeks ago the World Health Organisation urged suppliers of drugs like Actemra to increase their supply to low and middle-income countries where COVID-19 is surging.
“The inequitable distribution of vaccines means that people in low- and middle-income countries are most susceptible to severe forms of COVID-19. So, the greatest need for these drugs is in countries that currently have the least access. We must urgently change this,” World Health Organisation Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
Roche is the Australian sponsor of Actemra and responsible for importing it into the country.
“During the pandemic, demand for Actemra has been increasing at a global level for both approved indications such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and the investigational treatment of COVID-19 pneumonia, which is not a registered indication in Australia,” a Roche spokeswoman said.
“Roche has been working urgently to increase manufacturing capacity and supply by ramping up our global production network and collaborating with external partners and is working with high priority and urgency to cover the Actemra demand globally for patients currently on therapy for the treatment.”
The TGA said in an update last week that the shortages were not expected to affect patients for intravenous products, though there would be a six week shortage of pre-filled syringe doses from mid-August to mid-October.
Supply is also expected to be constrained for 400mg intravenous doses of the medicine from August to January 2022.
Chief executive of Arthritis Australia Jonathan Smithers said that while patients don’t need to panic, those who have been prescribed these medications should discuss the situation with their doctors.
“There are a range of alternatives [treatments] that can be discussed,” he said.
The TGA has met with Roche, the Australian Rheumatology Association and Arthritis Australia to discuss the state of the shortages.
Mr Smithers said that consultation showed that the nation’s medicines shortages processes were working well.
“We’re pleased this is being flagged up and that there is a system,” he said.
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