By Matthias Blamont and Michael Erman
PARIS, April 2 (Reuters) - Sanofi SA SASY.PA will be able to provide millions of doses of hydroxychloroquine for patients with the illness caused by the novel coronavirus if the old malaria drug proves successful in clinical trials, its chief executive told Reuters on Thursday.
Paul Hudson, who became CEO of the French drugmaker in September, said in an interview that the company is currently manufacturing at over 93% capacity during the pandemic.
He said the company had made a choice to "overproduce" its drugs to ensure supplies for hospitals in Europe and the United States facing an unprecedented crush of patients suffering from respiratory complications that is threatening to overwhelm healthcare systems.
Hospital executives and doctors from nine European countries, in an open letter on Wednesday, said they only had up to two weeks worth of some medicines used in intensive care units and urged greater European collaboration.
European Union countries will have access to the medicines they need, the bloc's industry chief Thierry Breton said on Thursday in an attempt to reassure the public.
Hudson said Sanofi was not at full manufacturing capacity because workers with coronavirus symptoms such as fever, and any employee who had been in close contact with them, are sent home for two weeks.
"We are overly cautious. One person getting a temperature means we lose maybe a half dozen people," he said.
Sanofi operates 73 industrial locations in 32 countries.
"More than 80% of the medicines we make are considered essential. So, you know, everywhere we are working, we are pretty much working every hour," Hudson said.
The company began manufacturing as much hydroxychloroquine as it could in February, after Chinese data suggested the malaria drug could help some patients with COVID-19. Sanofi sells the drug, which has been in use since the 1950s, under the brand name Plaquenil in some countries.
The new coronavirus emerged in China in December and has since spread around the world. It has infected over 1 million people globally and killed more than 51,400.
SURGE IN DEMAND
Sanofi is also developing two potential vaccines against the coronavirus, and is testing the rheumatoid arthritis drug Kevzara it sells in partnership with Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc REGN.O as a potential COVID-19 treatment.
Demand for hydroxychloroquine surged after U.S. President Donald Trump touted it as a potential "game changer" for the pandemic and U.S. regulators have since authorized its emergency use for coronavirus patients.
But the small Chinese trial had many limitations and the European Commission has said there is no evidence yet that the drug is effective for coronavirus patients.
Sanofi has fielded requests for the drug, which is also used to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, from countries all over the world, Hudson said.
He added that Sanofi is working with other companies to make sure the supply of hydroxychloroquine is as broad as possible.
"We just tried to coordinate a little bit to say to companies, 'Let's all not end up supplying the same market. Let's make sure that everybody has a chance that needs it,'" Hudson said. If one area is well supplied, he added, "then we're happy to help somewhere else."
There is still much to learn about who is most likely to be helped by the drug and at what dose before companies can accurately estimate supply demand if the treatment proves effective.
"It's important to know whether you would give it to mild patients or severe patients," Hudson explained. "The sheer volume difference in those patients is significant."
(Reporting by Michael Erman in Maplewood, New Jersey, and Matthias Blamont in Paris; Editing by Bill Berkrot)
((firstname.lastname@example.org; +1 646-223-6021; Reuters Messaging: email@example.com))
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.