The drug could provide an important tool for the world on top of vaccines.
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- Efforts are intensifying to bring medication for Covid-19 to
developing countries that have struggled to vaccinate their populations.
- Pharmaceutical company Merck & Co.’s pill for Covid-19 reflects a
reduced risk of hospitalisation or death by 50%, a clinical trial shows.
- The drug could potentially be cheap to manufacture, and be
available at low cost to developing nations, says a researcher.
As pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. races ahead with an
experimental pill that could play a pivotal role in the fight against Covid-19,
efforts are intensifying to bring the drug to developing countries that have
struggled to vaccinate their populations.
The global health agency Unitaid and its partners hope to
reach an agreement as soon as next week to secure the first supplies of the
antiviral treatment for lower- and middle-income nations, Philippe Duneton, its
executive director, said in an interview. Unitaid has been in discussions with
the company and generic manufacturers, he said.
“This is really what we’ve waited for all these months,”
he said. “There is a window of hope with this treatment, and now we need
to collectively make it work for people” in less well-to-do countries.
If the new medication hits the market, it could be a turning
point in the pandemic, but the global supply picture is uncertain. On the
vaccine front, lower-income nations have been left behind. About nine months
after the arrival of Covid-19 shots, more than 55 countries have yet to
vaccinate 10% of their populations. More than two dozen nations are below 2%.
The drug, known as molnupiravir, reduced the risk of
hospitalisation or death by 50% in an interim analysis of a late-stage clinical
trial, Merck and partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics said Friday.
The results were so positive that Merck and Ridgeback – in
consultation with independent trial monitors and the US Food and Drug
Administration – elected to stop enrolling patients and begin the process of
gaining regulatory clearance. Merck plans to submit the data to other
The company earlier this year announced that it had signed
non-exclusive voluntary licensing agreements for the drug with five generic
manufacturers in India in a bid to accelerate availability in more than 100
low- and middle-income countries following approvals or emergency authorisation
by local regulatory agencies.
Merck said it expects to produce 10 million courses of
treatment by year-end, with more expected in 2022. In June, the company agreed
to a $1.2 billion supply deal with the US government, under which it would
provide 1.7 million courses of the treatment.
Initial production wouldn’t go far given the number of
worldwide Covid cases. But the drug potentially could be very cheap to
manufacture, so it should be available at a low cost in developing nations,
Andrew Hill, a senior research fellow at the University of Liverpool, wrote in
“This could be a major advance in the treatment of
Covid-19,” he said.
Merck said it plans to implement a tiered pricing approach
based on World Bank income criteria to reflect countries’ ability to finance
their health response to the pandemic.
The drug could provide an important tool for the world on
top of vaccines, but manufacturing will need to be expanded and more funding is
required, according to Unitaid’s Duneton said.
“What we need to do is to create an affordable but
quality market of generics, exactly what we did for combating AIDS,” he
said. “It’s feasible, it can be done.”