Australia set to run out of key pain relief drug due to pandemic

The pandemic has interrupted supply chains for a myriad products over the past 18 months, with some medications and medical equipment in even greater demand than toilet paper and pasta sauce.

And when existing medicines can be used to treat COVID infections, then supplies are in peak demand.

That’s the situation faced by an estimated 456,000 Australians suffering from rheumatoid arthritis (RA). RA is a painful and debilitating auto-immune disorder that affects the joints. The condition is more common in the joints of the hands and feet, but larger joints such as the hips and knees can also be affected.

Tocilizumab, sold in Australia under the brand name Actemra, is a drug used to treat moderate to severe RA. An anti-inflammatory drug, Actemra is administered intravenously either through an IV drip or through a delivery pen similar to an EpiPen.

Read: Seven arthritis myths busted

“We’re being told that Australia won’t have any more deliveries of IV tocilizumab until early 2022,” rheumatologist Dr Ben Whitehead told RN Breakfast.

“So that means there is a possibility that towards the end of this year there may be a shortage or absence of available tocilizumab.”

As well as a treatment for RA, tocilizumab has shown positive results in the treatment of severe COVID-19 cases. The drug has proved effective in various studies at reducing the length of hospital stays for COVID-related pneumonia.

There aren’t many drugs that can treat the symptoms of COVID-19, so tocilizumab has become a hot ticket item over the past two years. National health authorities around the globe, including in Australia, were quick to approve tocilizumab for use in treating COVID.

Genentech (a subsidiary of pharmaceutical giant Roche), licensed manufacturers of the drug, acknowledged that the pandemic demand for tocilizumab has far outstripped their ability to manufacture the drug.

Read: Higher costs, more errors when medicines scarce due to COVID

“We recognise the urgency around the situation and understand the frustration that patients, their families and healthcare providers are experiencing due to these supply constraints,” the company says in a statement.

“We expect additional intermittent periods of [low supplies] in the months ahead, especially if the pandemic continues at the current pace.”

At home, the situation for rheumatoid arthritis sufferers is becoming difficult. The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has advised that vials of tocilizumab will be safe to use for a period after their expiry dates.

“Due to the current shortages of tocilizumab (Actemra) and the current COVID-19 pandemic, the TGA is advising that we have assessed that tocilizumab vials continue to be stable for a further six months past their labelled expiry date,” the TGA says.

“We consider there is sufficient evidence to indicate tocilizumab intravenous vials are stable for up to a total of 36 months with storage conditions at 2°C to 8°C.”

Read: When to see a doctor about joint pain

If the government’s handling of securing COVID-19 vaccine supplies is any indication, then rheumatoid arthritis sufferers may be in for a rough time in the months ahead.

Do you or anyone you know take tocilizumab for rheumatoid arthritis? Have you spoken to your GP about what you can do during the shortage? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Written by Brad Lockyer

Brad has deep knowledge of retirement income, including Age Pension and other government entitlements, as well as health, money and lifestyle issues facing older Australians. Keen interests in current affairs, politics, sport and entertainment. Digital media professional with more than 10 years experience in the industry.

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