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Novartis says it won’t profit from sale of generic COVID-19 drugs to lower-income countries

Novartis said it will sell a set of generic and over-the-counter medicines at cost in as many as 79 lower and middle-income countries in a bid to help fight COVID-19.The Swiss pharma giant claims it won’t profit from these sales until the pandemic is over and a “curative” vaccine is available. The group of 15 medicines includes often-used antibiotics such as amoxicillin, the blood thinner heparin and dexamethasone, a steroid that thus far is the only drug shown to reduce risk of death in people hospitalized with COVID-19.The medications can help treat the gastrointestinal illness, acute respiratory symptoms, pneumonia and septic shock patients with coronavirus disease can suffer

In the absence of a cure or vaccine for COVID-19, healthcare systems are relying on existing therapies to treat the wide range of symptoms caused by the disease. Novartis said it chose the 15 drugs in part because it has plenty of stock on hand and can meet global demand.

The effort builds on an earlier announcement from Sandoz, Novartis’ generics division, that it will keep prices stable on medicines needed for patients infected with the novel coronavirus. That list included an even bigger group of drugs, such as the antiviral ritonavir.

Novartis has also been donating the controversial malaria pill hydroxychloroquine for use in clinical trials of coronavirus patients.

President Donald Trump has touted the drug heavily, even telling reporters that he took it to prevent COVID-19. But a number of studies showed the drug held no benefit for coronavirus patients and raised a specter of health risks. The Food and Drug Administration in June revoked an emergency use authorization for hydroxychloroquine and has warned about risks including heart, kidney and liver problems. Novartis gave up on its own clinical trial for the medicine, saying it couldn’t recruit enough participants.

Novartis has been working in other ways to help fight the epidemic, committing to donating $40 million to support affected communities and collaborating with initiatives such as the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator.

The company isn’t a major player in the vaccine market after selling most of that business to GlaxoSmithKline in 2015. But its AveXis gene therapy division has agreed to manufacture a coronavirus vaccine being developed by the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Hospital. The vaccine should begin clinical testing later this year.