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Utah pharmaceutical company rolls out first affordable drugs to combat nationwide shortages

Civica Rx administered its first dose of a high-powered antibiotic — and it cost less than half what it had before.

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Brian Pendleton, nurse administrator at Intermountain Healthcare’s, checks Bethany Sumner’s IV with the antibiotic vancomycin at Riverton Hospital in Riverton on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. Vancomycin is the first medication produced by Civica Rx, a nonprofit drug company formed by Intermountain Healthcare and other health systems and organizations in the U.S. to make generic medications accessible and affordable.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

RIVERTON — A Utah-based, nonprofit pharmaceutical manufacturing company has delivered its first medication to Utah hospitals, and patients are already benefiting.

The top-prioritized drug and commonly used intravenous antibiotic powerhouse, vancomycin (which has been in short supply for years), turned out to be a godsend for Bethany Sumner, of West Jordan, who will receive two doses a day for at least the next few days.

She had already been turned away from another hospital, after X-rays didn’t reveal anything was wrong. But the pain in her hip was increasing enough for her to know there definitely was something awry.

“It was getting worse every day,” she said.

It turned out to be a septic joint, an infection in the joint that can be caused by any number of things, and vancomycin was the last line of defense to treat it.

“Thankfully,” Sumner, 40, said, “it was available.”

Drug shortages, specifically the life-saving kind used in hospitals, affect patients all over the country.

“When we don’t have that drug, we scramble to find it and it is very stressful and puts our patients at risk,” Dan Liljenquist, senior vice president and chief strategy officer at Intermountain Healthcare and head of the board at Civica Rx, said Wednesday. His brainchild, Civica Rx, set out in September 2018 to address medication shortages everywhere.

More than 40 health systems — representing over 1,000 hospitals in 46 states — have joined together to solve the long-standing problems affecting the supply chain for various medications.

Civica Rx administered its first dose of vancomycin, to a different patient at Intermountain’s Riverton Hospital last Thursday — and it cost less than half what it had before, Liljenquist said.

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An IV with the antibiotic vancomycin is checked for a patient at Riverton Hospital in Riverton on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. Vancomycin is the first medication produced by Civica Rx, a nonprofit drug company formed by Intermountain Healthcare and other health systems and organizations in the U.S. to make generic medications accessible and affordable.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“It’s great news for patients in the state of Utah,” he said, adding that he couldn’t resist keeping the empty bottle from which the first dose of a Civica Rx-produced drug was drawn.

“This will be something that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life — especially because it is empty,” Liljenquist said.

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Dan Liljenquist, chairman of Civica RX, holds the first vial of the nonprofit drug company’s antibiotic vancomycin, which was used to treat a patient, at Riverton Hospital in Riverton on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

He said vancomycin is only the first of more affordable drugs to come.

The company, which doesn’t have shareholders, expects to announce the availability of another 14 products before the end of the year.

“This company ... will do some good,” Liljenquist said.

Drug manufacturers, he said, will sometimes hold back production of certain drugs “to find out just how desperate your customers are for your product,” which allows them to raise the prices.

“We would almost spend whatever it took to save a life at Intermountain Healthcare. Every life is valuable, and so we do what it takes to save a life,” Liljenquist said. “When you have a manufacturer who knows that, it’s very easy for them to abuse that.”

What results is a shortage of that product on the market.

Lehi-based Civica Rx partnered with Xellia Pharmaceuticals, of Denmark, to produce vancomycin, which has to be flash-frozen and dried into a powder in a completely sterile environment in order to be effective. Not to mention, highly regulated drug production requires high levels of oversight and quality testing to get it right.

“These products are very difficult to make and the risks of not getting them right are very high,” Liljenquist said. “It’s a very involved process.”

Another powerful antibiotic called daptomycin will also be made available from Civica Rx shortly. Participating hospitals can expect to receive orders of vancomycin before the end of the month and daptomycin shortly thereafter.

Liljenquist said introducing new competition to the market, as well as a commitment from participating hospitals, will help to drive drug prices down to what they should be following the more pricey patented years.

“We have a simple mission to ensure that generic medications are available and affordable to everyone,” he said.