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[INTERVIEW] We Have Mobilized $2m to Support COVID-19 Relief Efforts in Africa -Muchilwa

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Head of Sub-Sahara Africa at Novartis, Racey Muchilwa in this interview, highlights issues underpinning COVID-19 pandemic response in Africa, the role Novartis is currently playing, particularly in supporting relief efforts across the continent, as well as other sundry topical issues.

Q. As Head of Novartis Sub Saharan Africa, what is your evaluation of Covid-19 pandemic since the virus hit that region?

A.  As head of a healthcare company in Sub Sahara Africa, but more so as an African, I am acutely aware of the current spike in infections happening on our continent; and equally aware of the limitations and vulnerabilities we have in dealing with such a pandemic. It’s for this reason that we have mobilized $2 million grant funding to 18 Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Africa to support their pandemic relief efforts. We have also provided hydroxychloroquine upon request and most recently announced the Novartis Pandemic Response Portfolio for countries with inherently fragile healthcare systems.

Q.  Novartis has a program that is targeted at 79 eligible countries, including Nigeria, how does this benefit average and poor Nigerians? 

A.  Access to medicine can be a challenge for patients in low- and lower-middle-income countries and the situation has worsened during COVID-19. With our COVID-19 portfolio, we wish to help address the additional healthcare demands of the pandemic to help mitigate the impact on LICs and LMICS, such as Nigeria, and support healthcare systems in dealing with the virus.

Q. How do you ensure that the drugs get to the target people considering the politics of diversion and corruption in this region?

A.  Local Novartis teams will work with health authorities, NGOs, and Faith-Based Organizations (FBOs) in eligible countries to ensure proper distribution channels and that the medicines reach patients in need.

Q. Novartis has been talking about across the counter treatments for managing Covid-19 symptoms, how can this help to reduce fatal cases, especially for average Nigerians who cannot afford to pay for Covid-19 tests.

A.   Most of the medicines in our Pandemic Response Portfolio are prescription medicines to support patient safety. Our current knowledge is that fatal cases of COVID-19 are mostly linked to advanced age and underlying conditions such as poorly-controlled high blood pressure, asthma and diabetes. Patients should continue to take their medications as prescribed by their treating doctors and should follow local guidelines on avoiding infection but if exposure has happened, they should prevent passing it on and should seek treatment from a healthcare provider. We advise a COVID-19 test to be done so that the right medicine can be selected by the Healthcare provider.

Q. Another drug hydroxychloroquine, has come into the picture thanks to the US president, Donald Trump, how do you think Nigerians should relate to this?

A. It should be noted that the US FDA recently withdrew its emergency-use registration for hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) to be used in COVID-19 and several trials in mild and severe COVID-19 have not shown any benefit. However, there are still several trials ongoing researching its effectiveness to treat COVID-19. There is no current evidence to suggest that HCQ should be taken to prevent disease and if symptoms appear, people should seek advice from a healthcare provider.

Q. Your company is big on R&D, how much of it has been done and ongoing on Covid-19 pandemic in relation to Sub Saharan Africa?

A. The Novartis HCQ trial was cancelled due to difficult recruitment and also based upon latest evidence emerging to show lack of benefit in COVID-19. That trial had a number of sites in South Africa. We are also aware of some trials being carried out in Sub Sahara Africa by independent organizations such as the DNDi. There are no Novartis clinical trials ongoing in SSA specifically relating to COVID-19, however we have a number of clinical trials ongoing in malaria and sickle cell disease in East and West Africa, with our efforts also being focused on clinical trials in other disease areas such as cardiovascular, eye disease and oncology.

Our aim is to improve patient access and outcomes and to this end, expanding our clinical trial footprint in SSA allows us to build R&D capabilities and to diversify the body of evidence that exists from developed parts of the world. We continue to support the wider public health response to the crisis, including by pledging to donate millions of doses of our medicines to enable patients to access a potential treatment while also advancing clinical research in the fight against COVID-19. We have made significant contributions – upwards of USD 40 million – to over 60 projects around the world that support local communities impacted by the crisis. These include donations to strengthen medical infrastructure and provide on-site support in many countries including Italy, Croatia and Brazil. And we are supporting aid in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where the potential effects of COVID-19 could be devastating due to the health care challenges the continent already faces.


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