• The California biotech giant Gilead Sciences is planning to spend up to $1 billion to ramp up production of its promising coronavirus treatment remdesivir.
  • The manufacturing ambitions come before the antiviral drug is approved by any health regulators for use in COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
  • Hospitalized patients with COVID-19 who got remdesivir recovered 31% faster than a similar group taking placebos, the US National Institutes of Health announced Wednesday.
  • On a Thursday earnings call, Gilead executives said they will donate roughly 1.5 million doses of the drug. But beyond that, they dodged Wall Street’s questions about a pricing strategy for the treatment. They pledged to make the drug affordable.
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Gilead Sciences is planning to spend some serious cash to boost production of a promising coronavirus drug.

The company is expecting to commit as much as $1 billion to manufacturing the antiviral treatment remdesivir, executives at the biotech company said on a Thursday earnings call.

Remdesivir has not been approved to treat coronavirus patients by health regulators. But study results released Wednesday showed the treatment helps patients recover more quickly from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The ultimate size of the investment will depend on how the drug’s data and the pandemic evolve, said Andrew Dickinson, Gilead’s chief financial officer. Through the end of March, Gilead had spent about $50 million on remdesivir, without knowing whether or not it worked.

CEO Daniel O’Day said there will be an “exponential increase” in remdesivir supply during the second half of 2020. The biotech anticipates making more than 1 million treatment courses by year’s end.

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The company also pledged to donate its current supply of remdesivir, which amounts to about 140,000 courses of treatment.

Looking beyond the immediate term, Gilead executives declined to say how they’ll set a price for the pill, which is now the frontrunner to be the first effective coronavirus treatment. Hospitalized patients who got remdesivir recovered 31% faster than a group taking placebo, the US National Institutes of Health found in a clinical trial.

The Gilead executives called it “too premature” to discuss pricing for the drug, which is given as an IV infusion in hospitals.

Several Wall Street analysts inquired, but company leaders offered little beyond a general aim to make the drug “accessible and affordable.”

SVB Leerink biotech analyst Geoff Porges, for instance, referenced the profit margins Gilead has made selling medicines for other infectious diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C.

“What’s special about COVID?” Porges asked.

“I don’t think there is a precedent for this,” O’Day replied, saying a market for a COVID-19 treatment will be unique and different from these other diseases.

“There is no rule book out there. other than that we need to be very thoughtful about how we can make sure we provide access of our medicine to patients around the globe and do that in a sustainable way for the company, for you as shareholders, and we acknowledge that,” he added.

Read more: Coronavirus researchers are crafting drug cocktails with Gilead’s antiviral remdesivir, tapping the HIV playbook to fight the coronavirus

Later on the call, O’Day said that as the company measures production for remdesivir in the millions of doses, “we have to have a sustainable economic model that works.”

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As the frontrunner in the sprint to an effective COVID-19 treatment, Gilead will be first to face the task of mapping a commercial strategy for a coronavirus drug. At least for now, the company isn’t ready to share a plan.

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