The World Health Organization (WHO) has prequalified the arthritis treatment tocilizumab for patients hospitalised with severe COVID-19.

The prequalification would help facilitate access to the expensive drug for low and middle income countries.

“The listings should pave the way for more companies coming forward to seek WHO prequalification, thereby increasing the number of quality-assured products and creating competition leading to potentially lower prices. The prequalification of these products will also facilitate low- and middle-income countries’ authorisation of them as Covid treatments,” the WHO said in a statement issued Friday, February 11.

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Tocilizumab is a monoclonal antibody used in anti-inflammatory drugs is produced by the pharmaceutical company Roche. It has been authorized for the treatment of arthritis in around 120 countries across the world so far.

The drug works by inhibiting the Interleukin-6 (ILS-6) receptor — known to induce an inflammatory response. The receptor is found in high levels in patients with severe COVID. 

The WHO based its decision on clinical studies that have proven its effectiveness in reducing death among COVID-19 patients who are severely ill, have oxygen needs, have an inflammatory response, and are deteriorating. In the RECOVERY trial, tocilizumab even reduced patients’ time in the hospital. 

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The treatment is only recommended in specific conditions. It is only advisable for people who are critically ill, and must be given by a healthcare worker in a monitored clinical setting, supplemented by the standard care for COVID which includes oxygen, corticosteroids, and other medications, the WHO said. 

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To date, six COVID-19 treatments have been prequalified by WHO, including the three presentations (three vials, each with a different quantity) of the product prequalified today — all produced by Roche.