As active COVID cases rise in Chennai, the city has started facing an apparent shortage of Remdesivir. The shortage has been acute enough to force thousands — mostly relatives of hospitalised COVID-19 patients — to line up in long, serpentine queues at the Kilpauk Medical College hoping to get their hands on a few vials of the drug.
In his sixties, L Radhakrishnan braved the heat to line up at queue for four hours, waiting his turn. “Yesterday, people had to wait six to seven hours before buying Remdesivir,” he said, speaking to CNBC-TV18, “But the government has still not learnt its lesson.”
Radhakrishnan’s reference is to unprecedented queues of patients’ relatives waiting to get their hands on the prescription drug. The last few days have seen several doctors across private hospitals in Chennai prescribe Remdesivir as part of COVID-19 treatment.
People queue up at Kilpauk Medical College hoping to get their hands on a few vials of remdesivir (Image: Jude Sannith/CNBC-TV18)
While Remdesivir is usually administered by an on-duty doctor within hospital premises, the escalating caseload in Chennai has most doctors leaving patients’ relatives to fend for themselves while trying to source it. The Tamil Nadu Government, on its part, has concentrated supplies of Remdesivir to the Kilpauk Medical College. This in turn, has seen bottlenecks at depots,as large numbers gather, prescription in hand, to buy the drug.
“After 12 noon or 12.30, there’s only one counter that’s functioning and catering to 1,000 people every day,” said G Mohan, hoping to buy Remdesivir for his in-law admitted at a city-based hospital, “There are no facilities here for people who line up for hours; we have been standing the sun for two hours, now.”
However, the government is steadfast in insisting that there is no shortage of Remdesivir per-se. The “indiscriminate prescribing” of the drug by doctors treating COVID-19, according to state principal secretary (health), Dr J Radhakrishnan, has resulted in a rush to buy the drug.
Advising doctors to not over-prescribe Remdesivir: TN Govt
“There is a huge rush to buy the drug, and we are intervening on two fronts,” said Radhakrishnan, speaking exclusively to CNBC-TV18, “We’re trying to tell the doctors that indiscriminate prescription of Remdesivir is not advisable. I’m sure things will ease on the supply front too.”
Such was the panic among patients and caregivers, amid reports of a shortage in Remdesivir that vials worth Rs 1,400 were being sold for as high as Rs 14,000 per vial. This prompted the government to conduct a market intervention and warn against the hoarding and black-marketing of the drug. “With this market intervention, the black-market issue will also get resolved,” said Radhakrishnan.
What has complicated matters is that doctors are a divided lot when it comes to administering Remdesivir. While several doctors across private hospitals say the drug isn’t exactly a magic bullet to treating COVID-19 in terms of avoiding deaths, some others have fallen back on administering the drug since they said it reduces viral load.
‘Remdesivir does not help’
“Why are we going after a drug that doesn’t really change outcomes? The idea is not to cure everybody from COVID. The idea is to prevent deaths,” said Dr Subramanian Swaminathan, Director (Infectious Diseases), Gleneagles Global Health City, “If the answer is to prevent deaths, then Remdesivir does nothing. I think this is an artificially created situation and the fact that we don’t have technical guidelines is the number one reason.”
The absence of guidelines that Dr Subramanian refers to means that advisories are all that doctors across the city have while deciding whether or not to administer Remdesivir. This has left patients’ relatives like Cynthia Parthiban wondering if the long wait in endless queues will bear fruit at the end of their ordeal.
“I checked back at the hospital, they haven’t started the treatment,” Cynthia cries helplessly, referring to her mother admitted after testing positive for COVID-19. “The doctors have only begun administering oxygen,” she adds, “If Remdesivir is not the cure, why are you prescribing so much of it?”That question remains, as do the seemingly endless queues even as a worsening public health crisis looks like it could only get worse, in the absence of clear treatment protocols.