Cheap version of Merck COVID pill to be made for poorer nations

An experimental COVID-19 treatment pill, called molnupiravir and being developed by Merck & Co Inc and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics LP, is seen in this undated handout photo released by Merck & Co Inc and obtained by Reuters May 17, 2021. REUTERS
An UN-backed agency has struck a deal for nearly 30 generic drugmakers to make low-cost versions of Merck & Co's COVID-19 pill molnupiravir for poorer nations, widening access to a drug seen as a weapon in fighting the pandemic.

The antiviral drug, which in December received emergency approval in the United States, reduces hospitalisations and deaths of high-risk patients by around 30%, according to clinical trial results.

The agreement, negotiated by the UN-backed Medicines Patent Pool (MPP) with Merck, allows 27 generic drugmakers from India, China and other countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East to produce ingredients and the finished drug.

The MPP said on Thursday the deal stipulated the pill would be distributed to 105 less-developed nations.

The developers of molnupiravir, which alongside Merck are US firm Ridgeback Biotherapeutics and Emory University, will not receive royalties for the sale of the low-cost versions produced by generic drugmakers while COVID-19 remains classified as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

"This is a critical step towards ensuring global access to an urgently needed COVID-19 treatment and we are confident that, as manufacturers are working closely with regulatory authorities, the anticipated treatments will be rapidly available," said MPP Executive Director Charles Gore.

Bangladesh's Beximco Pharmaceuticals, India's Natco Pharma, South Africa's Aspen Pharmacare Holdings and China's Fosun Pharma are among generics firms that will produce the finished product.