ZURICH (Reuters) – Switzerland’s Bachem has begun round-the-clock production of Propofol, a drug needed to sedate ventilated patients whose plight during the pandemic — prone, unconscious, hospitalised — has become emblematic of COVID-19’s hit to healthcare systems.

Bachem, a drug ingredients supplier based near Basel, said on Monday that worldwide demand for the anaesthetic agent has skyrocketed, prompting it to staff production lines in Vionnaz in southern Switzerland 24 hours a day, seven-days-a-week, as well as to invest in new equipment to guarantee supply.

In normal times, short-acting Propofol is given intravenously to help start and maintain general anaesthesia and sedate mechanically ventilated patients who cannot breathe on their own.

As tens of thousands of people infected with the new coronavirus have needed intensive care as their lungs filled with fluid, demand for the 43-year-old drug has risen.

Bachem’s move illustrates that even as a high-tech race for a COVID-19 vaccine advances and companies desperately pursue a new treatment for the disease, the pandemic has created challenges in fulfilling demands for older, established drugs including pain killers that doctors and nurses need to keep the stricken alive but which have faced short supplies.

“We are ensuring that the currently required quantities of Propofol can be manufactured and delivered,” Chief Executive Thomas Meier said, describing Bachem as the world’s leading supplier of Propofol. “To ensure that this remains the case in the future, we are expanding our production facilities accordingly.”

(Reporting by John Miller; editing by Thomas Seythal)