Novartis's Sandoz division will not profit from 15 generic drugs it is making available to developing countries to treat symptoms of COVID-19 for the pandemic's duration, the Swiss drugmaker said on Thursday.
Novartis's pledge to provide the antibiotics, steroids and diarrhea pills to 79 countries on the World Bank's list of low- and lower-middle income nations prompted the Doctors Without Borders non-governmental organization (NGO) to call for more transparency on drug pricing and for the industry to follow "no profiteering" initiatives for new COVID-19 medicines.
While Novartis has not seen supply chain disruptions for these medicines, Novartis Global Health Chief Operating Officer Lutz Hegemann told Reuters the program aimed to help vulnerable healthcare systems in Africa, Asia, South America and Eastern Europe from becoming overloaded.
"We shouldn't underestimate the stress that COVID puts particularly on fragile health systems," Hegemann said, adding Novartis hoped to work with health authorities, faith-based organizations and NGOs to eliminate big mark-ups. "We are not targeting classical commercial distribution channels, but very direct channels."
Novartis's brand-name drugs have had little application in treating the new coronavirus, while its older malaria drug hydroxychloroquine has flopped in some scientific trials against the disease.
But Sandoz generics are among medicines commonly used to treat symptoms of those hospitalized.
The 15 drugs include several antibiotics, the steroid dexamethasone that has seen some success in treating severe COVID-19 cases, heart failure drug dobutamine, antifungal fluconazole and lung drug salbutamol, among others.
Hegemann did not give the "no profit" cost of the drugs, compared with commercial prices.
The medicines have been around for decades and are comparatively cheap to make.
"Novartis should publish the actual 'at cost prices' for these medicines, as well as any costs of R&D and costs of production for all of their medicines," a Doctors Without Borders spokesperson said. "Additionally, we hope that corporations like Novartis will follow similar 'no profiteering' initiatives for any new COVID-19 products."