June 17, 2020 / 3:01 PM / 20 days ago

Asian pharma stocks jump on hopes for steroid in COVID-19 treatment

TOKYO/BENGALURU/KARACHI (Reuters) - Shares in Asian generic drug firms that make the anti-inflammatory steroid dexamethasone jumped on Wednesday after a trial showed it helped reduce death in severe COVID-19 cases.

Japanese generic drug maker Nichi-Iko Pharmaceutical Co’s shares rose 5% while those of India’s Wockhardt Ltd rose 5%. Pakistan’s Searle Company Ltd and ICI Pakistan rose as much as 7.2% and 6%.

Researchers in Britain said on Tuesday that dexamethasone, used in diseases such as arthritis, cut death rates of the most severely ill patients by around a third, making it the first drug shown to be able to save the lives of COVID-19 sufferers.

Peter Horby, an Oxford University professor co-leading the RECOVERY trial, said it should become a standard treatment for patients sick enough to require oxygen.

Wockhardt Chairman Habil Khorakiwala told the CNBC TV-18 news channel it had a “tremendous” capacity to make dexamethasone.

“We are ramping up our capacity further if the hospitals start using this as a routine treatment where patients are receiving oxygen or are on ventilators,” he said, adding that the drug may cost under 10 rupees (13 cents) in India.

Zafar Mirza, Pakistani State Minister of Health, tweeted that dexamethasone was an “old and cheap” drug and Pakistan had multiple producers.

Nichi-Iko said it and Bristol-Myers Squibb unit Celgene sell the drug in Japan.

A Nichi-Iko spokesman said it was aware of the British research and ready to supply more but had not yet seen demand surge.

Dexamethasone is listed as in short supply in the U.S. but several suppliers, including one of the largest - Germany’s Fresenius SE - say they have stocks.

Shares in Nichi-Iko climbed 4.7% on Wednesday, outperforming a 0.6% drop in the broader market. India’s Cadila Healthcare, which also sells dexamethasone, ended 1% up. ($1 = 76.1111 Indian rupees)

Reporting by Rocky Swift in TOKYO, Sachin Sai Ravikumar in BENGALURU, Sumit Khanna in AHEMDABAD and Syed Raza Hassan in KARACHI; Writing by Miyoung Kim and Zeba Siddiqui; Editing by Kevin Liffey

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