MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
After months of speculation, the drugmaker Gilead Sciences has finally announced the price for remdesivir. That is their experimental COVID-19 drug. NPR pharmaceutical correspondent Sydney Lupkin is with us.
Hey there, Sydney.
SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So the big reveal - what's it going to cost?
LUPKIN: So just to refresh our memories, remdesivir is an experimental, intravenous drug, and it's given to COVID-19 patients who are in the hospital. Even though we've been hearing about patients getting this drug in and out of studies for months, it actually isn't yet FDA approved, and it hasn't had a price. Gilead had committed to donating its initial supply. And now that that's about used up, it's announced a price. So it's going to be $520 per vial for most Americans with insurance. And there would be a lower price for certain government programs, and there are some unknowns. But outside of the U.S., the price for governments in developed countries would be about $390. And then for a five-day course of treatment, that comes out to more than $2,000 for those governments and a little bit more than $3,000 for private insurance.
KELLY: Which - well, give us some context here. That does not sound cheap. Is that a good deal? Is it a fair price?
LUPKIN: Yeah. I mean, that's a really good question. The reactions so far have been mixed. Some advocates and members of Congress are already saying the price is just way too high. They argue that taxpayers helped pay for remdesivir research and that that should result in a lower price, considering that, you know, we're in the middle of a pandemic. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat from Texas, has called the price outrageous.
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LLOYD DOGGETT: Without a taxpayer investment of $99 million, this drug would have been abandoned. It would be on the scrap heap of failures.
LUPKIN: But on the other hand, Gilead actually set the price for remdesivir lower than a lot of analysts expected. Some said Gilead showed a lot of restraint when it set this price because it could have charged more. One told me the remdesivir price offers a really great value considering the drug could keep patients out of the ICU, which costs tens of thousands of dollars.
KELLY: Right. That prompts the next thing I want to ask you, Sydney, because setting aside whatever it's going to cost, there have been all these questions about remdesivir and whether it works and how it compares to other treatments and cures in the pipeline. Where does that stand?
LUPKIN: So right now we know from an NIH-funded study that remdesivir can shorten patients' hospital stays by about four days, but we still don't know whether it has an effect on overall survival. So even though it's a good first drug, its benefits are still somewhat modest. Meanwhile, there is now a U.K. study that shows that another drug - a cheaper, generic steroid - has actually been shown to increase survival for COVID-19 patients. So overall, we know we're going to need other drugs beyond remdesivir. Craig Garthwaite, a health economist at Northwestern University, says companies developing newer, maybe better treatments will be paying close attention to remdesivir.
CRAIG GARTHWAITE: Gilead will make a good amount of money selling this product, and that's where the return that other people are going to be looking at - in the end, really, the other firms aren't necessarily looking at the price Gilead charges. What they're really looking at is, what is the payoff that they get on their investment?
LUPKIN: They want to know, will there be a reward for their risky investments? And at the announced price, Gilead is expected to make a profit.
KELLY: One last thing to ask you, which is, is there enough remdesivir? Is there enough supply to go around?
LUPKIN: Sure. So according to HHS, it has secured all of the remdesivir Gilead will manufacture in July and about 90% of its supply manufactured for the following two months through September. But there's still a limited amount of remdesivir. Since the FDA authorized remdesivir for emergency use in May, the federal government has been in charge of distribution around the country. And that rollout has had some problems with confusion over how the government was deciding where the remdesivir should go. Early on, some states and hospitals were wondering why they didn't get any. Now the government and state health departments will coordinate shipments directly to hospitals every two weeks, so we will see how that goes.
KELLY: All right. We'll see how that goes.
NPR's Sydney Lupkin - thanks, Sydney.
LUPKIN: You bet.
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