New Delhi: A cheap antacid is the latest drug stoking optimism among scientists and researchers seeking a cure for Covid-19, the biggest pandemic the world has seen in decades.
The Modi government has taken note of the buzz surrounding famotidine, and asked drug authorities — including the government-run affordable pharmacy chain Bhartiya Janaushadhi Pariyojana (BJP) and drug availability regulator National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) — to assess its domestic availability and production capacity, ThePrint has learnt.
Sold under different brand names, including Famocid in India and Pepcid in the US, famotidine is currently the subject of a trial in the United States. The trial followed reports from China that multiple elderly Covid-19 survivors in Wuhan were found to be heartburn patients who had been taking the drug.
“Based on inputs from other countries, the government is expecting an uptick in demand of famotidine in the coming days. It will be too soon to say the demand could be as high as it was for hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) but there is nothing wrong with preparations,” said a government official who was part of the meeting, held Monday.
The meeting was chaired by Mansukh Mandaviya, the minister of state for chemicals and fertilisers, who oversees the department of pharmaceuticals. It was attended by, among others, department of pharmaceuticals secretary P.D. Vaghela, NPPA chairman Shubhra Singh and Sachin Singh, CEO of Janaushadhi Pariyojana.
“Apart from HCQ, India has exported paracetamol in huge quantities across the globe. We should be prepared for famotidine as well, considering our position as ‘pharmacy to the world’,” the official added.
The official said India produced famotidine in “ample quantities”. “The preliminary results for the drug are likely to be out soon, which will decide the future of the drug but India produces it in ample quantities.”
At the meeting Monday, the government also decided to increase the procurement of the drug for the Janaushadhi scheme, which serves over 5,000 outlets across the country.
Procurements under the scheme act as a buffer stock for the government. In recent weeks, the Modi government is said to have fulfilled small export orders for hydroxychloroquine, paracetamol and masks through Janaushadhi stocks. “Meanwhile, the manufacturers can accelerate the production of the drug,” the official said.
An ‘old molecule’
Famotidine is an antihistamine that reduces the acid produced in the stomach, hence easing heart-burn. It is used in the treatment of acid reflux and peptic ulcers.
The drug has been perceived as “generally safe”, with common side-effects including headache and diarrhoea.
“It is one of the oldest molecules, which has now been taken over by latest antiacides such as proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs),” said Dinesh Dua, chairman, Pharmaceutical Export Promotion Council (Pharmexcil), which falls under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. “Otherwise, India is self sufficient in its production.”
“The price per tablet is just 30-40 paise and production can easily be ramped up, if demand picks up,” he added.
According to March data by the US company IQVIA, which deals in health information technology and clinical research, the Indian market for the drug is valued at Rs 37 crore, with over 7 crore tablets sold annually. The top players in the domestic segment are Sun Pharma, Torrent Pharmaceuticals and Cadila.
Famotidine & Covid-19
The coronavirus pandemic is believed to have originated in China’s Wuhan, and it’s in this town that a possible link between famotidine and Covid-19 survival was first noticed.
Doctors who worked with coronavirus patients in Wuhan reportedly discovered that although one in five Covid-19 patients aged above 80 had died, many among the survivors had been “taking heartburn meds”.
“Hospitalised COVID-19 patients on famotidine appeared to be dying at a rate of about 14% compared with 27% for those not on the drug, although the analysis was crude and the result was not statistically significant,” Science Magazine noted in 26 April report.
In light of the reports, scientists in the US began a trial to explore famotidine’s potential.
On 28 April, Kevin Tracey, president of Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research at Northwell Health, a New York City-based healthcare provider, told Science Magazine that “preliminary results of a clinical trial of famotidine could be ready in the next few weeks”.
The trials started on 7 April at Northwell, one of the largest hospitals in New York City. “As of 25 April, 1,174 patients — including 187 who were critically ill — have taken part,” a report on Health.com said.
Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling told CNBC earlier this week that scientists working on a drug trial have “a reasonable confidence” that the drug may make a difference in the treatment of Covid-19 patients.
The same hospital is also studying Gilead Sciences’ remdesivir, an experimental drug that has also been touted as having potential in treating Covid-19.