Utah’s new nonprofit drug company will offer two antibiotics that are sometimes in limited supply as its first products.

The company hopes to alleviate shortages and stabilize prices by ensuring a steady supply of crucial generic drugs to some 900 hospitals nationwide.

Civica Rx, which launched last month in Lehi, announced this week that it had partnered with Danish drug manufacturer Xellia to supply vancomycin and daptomycin, two antibiotics used to treat life-threatening infections, including drug-resistant staph infections.

“We will have a direct impact on patient safety and public health by providing consistent access to antibiotics that are important treatment options in the management of difficult-to-treat and life-threatening infections," Civica CEO Martin VanTrieste said in a news statement.

They are the first two of 14 drugs Civica says it will begin to sell this year. By securing commitments from hundreds of hosptials and operating as a not-for-profit, Civica says it will be able to work with contracted manufacturers to ensure a reliable supply of basic but crucial drugs that have historically been subject to price-gouging and shortages.

“These are ... life-saving medications ... that have been off and on" in short supply for years, said Erin Fox, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Utah who helps to manage the American Society of Health-Systems Pharmacists’ drug-shortage list. “It’s really nice to see Civica focusing on these two critically needed products, to stabilize the marketplace.”

The two drugs are not on the Food and Drug Administration’s shortage list, which generally only highlights drugs when their manufacturers cannot meet demand, making them unavailable to patients, Fox said. But less severe shortages still can affect patients, she said, when hospitals can only get the drugs in limited doses and strengths.

Vancomycin, for example, has not been completely unavailable at University of Utah Health, where Fox oversees drug supplies. But pharmacists often can't get a vial in the dose the patient needs, so they have to mix multiple vials together.

Combining two 500 mg doses to replace an unavailable 1g vial might sound like simple math. But it creates an unnecessary window for error, Fox said — especially, say, in small hospitals that have no onsite pharmacist, and where a nurse on a night shift might be left to prepare the antibiotics while managing other tasks.

"If people are very, very used to using only one vial for one dose, they might underdose the patients," Cox said. "One week you can't get the big vials. The next week you can't get the small vials. ... Hospitals need to do a lot of work-arounds to make sure patients get the right dosage. That creates potential for medication errors and delays."

Vancomycin and daptomycin have frequently appeared on the shortage list kept by the American Society of Hospital Pharmacists, which includes drugs affected by shortages in how they are prepared or dispensed. University of Utah Health, for example, has been fully stocked with vancomycin for a couple of months now, Cox said, “but that can change next week.”

Prices for the antibiotics haven’t undergone the massive swings that other generic drugs have, Cox added, but like most generics, they have become more expensive over time.

“We’re really excited that Civica is working on this,” she said. “It could really help stabilize the drug supply.”

During 2019, The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting on prescription drug prices in Utah with the support of the Association of Health Care Journalists’ Fellowship on Health Care Performance.