Arthritis drug funded to treat Covid-19 – Expert Reaction

Arthritis drug tocilizumab will now be funded to treat patients with moderate to severe cases of Covid-19.

The drug is facing massive demand around the world, with its manufacturer Roche no longer able to supply New Zealand with the drug for the next three months. Pharmac has also announced today it will begin funding an alternative drug for people with severe rheumatoid arthritis who have been affected by the shortage.

The SMC asked experts to comment on these announcements.

Dr Colin McArthur, Intensive Care Specialist, Auckland City Hospital, comments:

“There is now strong evidence that tocilizumab reduces mortality from severe COVID-19 and reduces the need for patients to be on a ventilator in intensive care. Given in conjunction with steroid medication such as dexamethasone, this treatment is of great benefit in both improving the outcome for individual patients, but also reducing the demand for intensive care. This combination of treatments works by modifying the body’s immune response, which in some cases can cause severe lung damage. Tocilizumab is only given to patients who are in hospital requiring extra oxygen and have signs of active inflammation.

“The announcement from PHARMAC of specific funding and arrangements to maximise the supply of tocilizumab during a period when there is a global shortage will be welcomed by all those involved in the hospital care of patients with COVID-19. In particular, the ability of this treatment to reduce the need for intensive care is very important for the New Zealand healthcare system.”

Conflict of interest statement: Dr McArthur is a senior author of one of the studies demonstrating the effectiveness of tocilizumab.