Merck, the American pharmaceutical company developing a promising new anti-Covid pill, today announced a deal with an UN-backed organization to allow companies in 105 low-income countries to produce a generic version of its drug without paying for its patent.
While the United States has already purchased more than a million doses of the drug. However, many middle-income countries are excluded from the deal and will have to compete with Europe and the United States at the prices set by the company.
The drug developed by Merck is called molnupiravir and is a pill that if taken at the onset of the first symptoms of Covid is able to reduce the risk of death and hospitalization of patients at risk by up to 50 percent, say the first clinical tests. The pill is in the process of being authorized by the American FDA and Ema Europe.
Merck is the first anti-Covid drug manufacturer to sign an agreement with the Medicine Patent Pool, a United Nations-backed organization that aims to expand access to drugs in lower-income countries.
According to Charles Gore, director of Medicine Patent Poll, there are already 50 companies around the world that are interested in producing the generic version of molnupiravir.
According to independent research, the cost of raw materials to produce a drug treatment (which consists of about 20 pills to be taken in five days) is $ 18. The drug could be profitable if sold for $ 20 per treatment, but some talk about dropping as low as $ 8.
Merck is the first company to reach an agreement with the Medicine patent pool on an anti-Covid drug. More generally, if approved, it will be one of the first anti-Covid drugs to be mass-produced without a license.
Earlier this year, a large movement made up of governments, Nobel laureates, economists and intellectuals called for a similar liberalization to be applied to Covid vaccines as well, but the request was blocked by the World Trade Organization.
Moderna, the only vaccine manufacturer to have promised not to prosecute any uses of its patent for a Covid vaccine, has never shared the manufacturing details of its vaccine, which therefore was not produced in a generic version by third parties.
Rich, poor and mean
The agreement reached today will allow 105 countries located mainly in Africa and Asia to produce and purchase molnupiravir at very low prices. Probably, production and sale will begin when the World Health Organization issues a “pre-qualification” of the drug, a sort of general authorization that will allow it not to undergo the regulatory processes of each individual country.
The news of the agreement was welcomed by NGOs and activists since after the announcement at the beginning of October of the first successful tests on the drug, there was a widespread fear that, as with vaccines, rich countries would end up grabbing all the doses of the drug, leaving weaker countries again at the mercy of the virus.
The US government, for example, has already allocated $ 1.7 billion to purchase 1.2 million treatments with molnupiravir, which translates into a cost of approximately $ 700 per cycle. Merck has already announced that it will continue to sell its drug to high- and middle-income countries, where the agreement with the Medicine patent poll does not apply.
Among the countries that will have to buy the drug at the price decided by Merck are China, Russia and much of Latin America. However, for countries like Colombia or Thailand, the situation remains not very encouraging, as they will hardly be able to compete with the United States and Europe in the purchase of the drug produced by Merck, but they will not be able to buy its generic and cheaper version either.
While promising, molupiravir is still not a complete replacement for vaccines, especially in poorer countries. To be effective, the drug should be administered early in the infection, when it can effectively help the body prevent the virus from replicating and thus stop the early-stage disease.
However, it is precisely the poorest countries that generally have health systems that are not able to detect the disease in its early stages. Often, you find that someone is sick when it’s time to hospitalize them and the pill is no longer very useful.
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