Mississippi hospitals dealing with global shortage of arthritis drug tocilizumab used to treat severely ill COVID-19 patients

COLUMBUS, Miss. (WCBI) – As hospitals across Mississippi and around the country continue to deal with high numbers of COVID-19 patients, yet another one of their resources is running low.

“One of the challenges we face is, ‘How do we treat patients in a consistent fashion?'” says North Mississippi Health Services Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jeremy Blanchard.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved tocilizumab for emergency use in late June. Two months later, a global shortage of the drug has drawn the concern of the World Health Organization. 

“Sometimes either those medications or our testing supplies have come at risk,” Dr. Blanchard says. “Most recently, we have one of our medications…that we use with severe respiratory dysfunctions that has a threatened supply chain right now.”

The WHO says tocilizumab can play a key part in keeping patients alive and reducing the need for mechanical ventilation for the severely ill.

“Very similar to the hydroxychloroquine family (of drugs) used in rheumatoid arthritis,” says Hank Norwood, a pharmacist for Allegro Family Clinics.

Now Mississippi hospitals must rely on alternatives.

“The steroid inhalers, the steroid packs, the antibiotic packs, and the breathing inhalers,” Norwood says.

Dr. Jeremy Blanchard says NMHS hospitals have algorithms to help guide them in choosing the best treatment for a patient.

“What they are is, if A happens then do B and if B happens then you do C,” he explained. “It’s based on a positive test and a set of symptoms that says you have COVID.”

But Dr. Blanchard says the best way to treat COVID is still to prevent someone from getting it.

“If you were going to look at what evidence do we have that really has been effective in treating and managing COVID, the three biggies that come up first are going to be vaccination, masking and monoclonal antibodies,” he says.

The WHO says it is working to expand the number of manufacturers of tocilizumab across the globe.


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