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Dr Averyan Vasylyev came to his colleagues at GlaxoSmithKline’s Gulf office in March with exciting news: early data showed the drugmaker’s new Covid-19 treatment, Sotrovimab, was making encouraging progress in medical trials.
“Guys, I think we’ve got to talk about this, this looks like something very exciting here,” one of his colleagues recalled him saying.
Three months after what GSK staff recalled as a “lights-went-on moment”, the UAE became the first country to receive a shipment of the drug, after it proved to be highly effective at limiting severe illness.
Trial data showed it reduced the risk of prolonged hospital treatment or death by 85 per cent, compared to a dummy treatment.
Dr Vasylyev, GSK’s medical affairs director in the Gulf, believes the drug is a durable product that will withstand future mutations of the virus.
“We have all those variants of interests and variants of concern, and Sotrovimab is attaching to the place where those variants are not happening,” he told The National.
“So basically, Sotrovimab is going to last for some time. From a medical point of view, it’s like a perfect medicine.”
In a relay race involving regulators, doctors and health officials across the Gulf, Sotrovimab was quickly made available to clinicians.
Space was cleared on an Etihad Airways aircraft so that the life-saving cargo could be shipped to the UAE.
UAE authorities announced this month that the drug had led to the recovery of 97 per cent of patients over a two-week period.
Sotrovimab, a laboratory-made antibody that mimics those produced by the immune system, is delivered into a patient’s veins by clinicians.
Britain's GSK teamed up with US company Vir Biotechnology to develop the treatment, as well as researching potential vaccines against Covid-19. Trials for Sotrovimab began last year.
Scientists gave the drug to volunteers in the US, Canada, Brazil and Spain to and studied its effect on virus variants in labs.
The breakthrough came in March when experts reading the data announced that no further volunteers were needed because evidence of the drug's effectiveness was stacking up.
It was authorised by the US Food and Drug Administration in May and the EU this month placed an order for up to 220,000 doses.
GSK experts have since received calls from other countries such as Australia asking for advice in deploying the drug.
Medical experts provide training to doctors on who is eligible to receive Sotrovimab and how to make sure they get it at the earliest opportunity. High demand for the product means the company has had to rewrite its supply schedule.
“We’ve all been in a type of hyperdrive for the last four to five months,” said Jeffrey Kemprecos, GSK’s head of government affairs in the Gulf.
“It’s just been very exciting for us. It’s re-energised us, because we know that this is making a difference for thousands of patients across the Gulf.”
Mr Kemprecos praised the UAE and Bahrain for their efforts in collecting patient data while deploying the drug.
He described a close collaboration between the drugmaker and health authorities as the product was brought to market.
“The policymakers were very quick up and down the Gulf, but led by the UAE, in saying we are interested,” he said.
“We were really amazed at the alacrity, the speed – everything was expedited when it came to Covid-19 and the national response.
“I’ve never seen an effort anything like it, where in a very compressed eight-week period, we were briefing medical teams up and down the Gulf.”
Canada last week became the latest country to approve the drug, after the EU's procurement deal opened the door to 18 European countries making use of the product.
Treatments such as Sotrovimab "will play a pivotal role in Europe's return to a new normal," EU health chief Stella Kyriakides said.
A vaccine candidate made by GSK and French company Sanofi showed disappointing results in a first set of trials. Results from subsequent tests were more encouraging, and a Phase III trial is ongoing.
Along with Sotrovimab, other therapeutic treatments include remdesivir, an anti-viral drug developed by US company Gilead.
GSK scientists hope to develop Sotrovimab so that it can be injected into a patient’s muscles instead of the intravenous method, which requires the drug to be administered over the space of an hour.
Dr Vasylyev said it was important to develop treatments for Covid patients in addition to preventive vaccines, because not everybody could be immunised.
“It’s not just the vaccine that will help us to go out and combat Covid-19,” he said. “We have to have a full arsenal.”