PAHO makes COVID-19 therapeutic available to 16 countries


Tocilizumab is used to treat severe disease and can reduce mortality in hospitalized patients

Washington, DC, 21 December (PAHO) – In an effort to increase equitable access to COVID-19 therapeutics, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) delivered more than 11,000 vials of a medication to improve treatment for severe and critically ill COVID-19 patients in 15 Latin American and Caribbean countries.  

Countries that have received the PAHO donation of tocilizumab since mid-September are Belize, Bolivia, Dominica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Peru, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname and Venezuela. Panama expects to receive it soon. 

The drug, tocilizumab, has been shown to reduce deaths in hospitalized patients with severe or critical COVID-19, who are rapidly deteriorating or need increased levels of oxygen, and who have a significant inflammatory response.   

The purchase, worth over US$2 million, was procured by PAHO and supported by the Government of the United States. 

“There is clear evidence that tocilizumab can help save lives in hospitalized COVID-19 patients,” Sylvain Aldighieri, Incident Manager for COVID-19 at PAHO, said.  “The medication was not available in many countries of the region, so PAHO wanted to ensure they have this additional tool for the clinical management of patients with COVID-19 and reduce mortality.”  

Since the beginning of the pandemic, COVID-19 has caused more than 2.8 million deaths in the region of the Americas. While vaccination has significantly decreased hospitalizations, the virus continues to cause severe disease particularly in at-risk groups, such as the elderly or those with serious underlying medical conditions. In the past week alone, COVID-19 was responsible for over 4,300 deaths in the region.   

An immunosuppressant, tocilizumab delivers monoclonal antibodies that target and block Interleukin-6 (IL-6) receptors. Cell protein Interleukin-6 induces an inflammatory response and is found in high levels in patients critically ill with COVID-19. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) added tocilizumab to its list of prequalified treatments for COVID-19 in early 2022. The drug was originally developed to treat arthritis and has been authorized for this use in many countries.  

Given intravenously, tocilizumab should be used in hospitals “alongside standard of care measures for severe COVID-19, such as oxygen, corticosteroids, and other medications,” said Ludovic Reveiz, Health Research Management advisor at PAHO.  

Studies have shown that it reduces mortality and complications, and that it can improve the overall condition of the patient. In the clinical trial RECOVERY, tocilizumab also reduced patients’ time in hospital.     

Currently, tocilizumab is expensive, and its purchase limited to many countries. “Health systems in the region have already been strained by the pandemic, and still struggle to identify and treat severe COVID-19 patients, so the availability of this medication can have a real impact,” Reveiz said.  

“COVID-19 will stay with us,” he added. “Having access to this medication gives countries another tool in their arsenal against the disease.”