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Merck’s new COVID pill raises hope for nations struggling to vaccinate

Merck’s COVID vaccine reduced the risk of hospitalization or death by 50% in an interim analysis.

As Merck & Company moves forward with an experimental pill that could play a key role in the fight against COVID-19, efforts are accelerating to bring the drug to developing countries that have struggled to vaccinate their populations. .

Global health agency Unitaid and its partners hope to reach an agreement as soon as next week to secure the first supplies of antiviral treatments for low- and middle-income countries, said Philip Dunton, its executive director. Said in an interview. He said UnitAid is in talks with the company and generic manufacturers.

“Actually this is what we have waited for all these months,” he said. “There is a window of hope with this treatment, and now we need to make it work collectively for people” in less affluent countries.

If the new drug hits the market, it could mark a turning point in the pandemic, but the global supply picture remains uncertain. On the vaccine front, low-income countries have lagged behind. Nearly nine months after the arrival of COVID shots, more than 55 countries have yet to vaccinate 10% of their population. More than two dozen nations are below 2%.

Merck and partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics LP said on Friday that the drug, known as molanupiravir, reduced the risk of hospitalization or death by 50% in an interim analysis of a late-stage clinical trial.

seeking approval

The results were so positive that Merck and Ridgeback — in consultation with the independent trial monitor and the US Food and Drug Administration — elected to stop enrolling patients and begin the process of obtaining regulatory approval. Merck plans to submit the data to other regulators around the world.

The company announced earlier this year that it has signed non-exclusive voluntary licensing agreements for the drug with five generic manufacturers in India, to allow more than 100 low and middle-income earners, after approval or emergency authorization by a local regulator. to accelerate availability in countries with agencies.

Merck said it expects to have 10 million courses of treatment ready by the end of the year, with more expected in 2022. In June, the company agreed a $1.2 billion supply deal with the US government, under which it would provide 1.7 million courses of treatment. .

Initial production will not go away considering the number of COVID cases across the world. But the drug could potentially be much cheaper to manufacture, so it should be available in developing countries at a lower cost, Andrew Hill, a senior research fellow at the University of Liverpool, wrote in an email.

“This could be a major advance in the treatment of COVID-19,” he said.

tiered pricing

Merck said it plans to implement a tiered pricing approach based on the World Bank’s income criteria to reflect countries’ ability to finance their health response to the pandemic.

Unitaid’s Dunton said the drug could provide an important tool on top of vaccines for the world, but would need to expand manufacturing and require more funding.

“We need to create an affordable yet quality market for generic drugs, just like we did to fight AIDS,” he said. “It’s possible, it can be done.”

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