Israel well placed to secure antiviral drug remdesivir — health official

Health Ministry’s Asher Shalmon predicts future ‘spike’ in cases, admits ‘compromises’ and ‘confusion’ in management of economy reopening

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A suspected coronavirus patient is evacuated to Hadassah Ein Karem Hospital in Jerusalem, on March 22, 2020. (Flash90)
A suspected coronavirus patient is evacuated to Hadassah Ein Karem Hospital in Jerusalem, on March 22, 2020. (Flash90)

Israel is well positioned to secure remdesivir, the antiviral drug lauded at the White House last week for its purported ability to “block” the coronavirus, a top health official has said.

Remdesivir could be available to treat coronavirus patients in America as early as this week, now that it has received emergency approval from the Food and Drug Administration, manufacturer Gilead Sciences has announced. But doctors elsewhere are bracing themselves for a global scramble for the drug, if it performs well in further testing.

Israel’s strong relationship with the California-based Gilead puts the country in a good position to ensure supply, a Health Ministry official told The Times of Israel on Monday.

“We have a long-lasting relationship with the company, they have strong representation here, and this helps in making sure it is available here,” Asher Shalmon, the ministry’s director of international relations, said.

Dr. Asher Shalmon, head of international relations in Israel’s Ministry of Health

He noted that the relationship has included the participation of Israeli hospitals in past and present Gilead tests. Israeli hospitals are currently part of two trials for remdesivir, one run by the company and one by the World Health Organization.

This involvement in trials means that around 10 people are now being treated with it, Shalmon noted. He said that even before mass production starts, Israel has supplies “to treat a few dozen more.” Shalmon emphasized that while his ministry is closely following data on the drug, it has not reached a conclusion on its effectiveness.

His comments came as some Israeli doctors are already hoping to start routinely administering the drug, and wondering whether they will be able to source it. Dr. Margarita Mashavi, who oversees coronavirus care at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, told The Times of Israel last week that she is “excited” about the drug. “I think it’s sensible to give it, but we don’t have it,” she said. “It’s very hard to get a hold of it.”

Israeli health professionals, like their counterparts around the world, have been eagerly waiting for more data on remdesivir since last Wednesday, when a top health adviser to US President Donald Trump, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said in the Oval Office that he expects remdesivir to become “the standard of care” for coronavirus patients, after seeing the results of a government study.

Fauci said data showed that the drug has a “clear-cut, significant, positive effect in diminishing time to recovery,” and that the test offered a “very important proof of concept” that “a drug can block this virus.”

As well as discussing remdesivir, Shalmon spoke to The Times of Israel about the broader Israeli fight against coronavirus.

He said that a spike in cases is “expected” as a result of schools reopening and other steps back to routine. His ministry is planning to send all Israeli students back to school by the end of May “if we don’t see surprises.”

White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx listens as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks during a meeting between President Donald Trump and Gov. John Bel Edwards, D-La., about the coronavirus response, in the Oval Office of the White House, April 29, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Asked whether a rise in COVID-19 cases is inevitable as Israelis interact with each other more, he replied: “I can’t say if it’s inevitable but it’s expected and we’re willing to absorb it if it’s a small spike.” He said he was “afraid” of losing control amid a larger wave.

Questioned about current government policy, Shalmon admitted that his ministry began with a “well defined exit strategy,” but “had to compromise.” He said: “Everything starts out with a strategy, but there are many compromises — political, social, and [with] lobbies.”

He acknowledged that some Israelis were puzzled by the current rules, and admitted that there is a “mass of regulations,” some of which “could be confusing.” Shalmon said that the ministry will clear up confusion in the coming weeks, by returning to a situation under which there are express prohibitions on actions and activities that are not allowed, while everything else will be permitted.

“We’ll change from regulations that tell you what you can do back to regulations that tell you what you can’t do,” he said.

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