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Gates Foundation to spend $120m on access for COVID-19 pill

October 20, 2021
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation says it will spend $120 million to boost access to generic versions of drugmaker Merck’s antiviral COVID-19 pill for lower income countries, if the drug gets approved by regulators.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation says it will spend $120 million to boost access to generic versions of drugmaker Merck’s antiviral COVID-19 pill for lower income countries, if the drug gets approved by regulators.

WASHINGTON — The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation says it will spend $120 million to boost access to generic versions of drugmaker Merck’s antiviral COVID-19 pill for lower income countries, if the drug gets approved by regulators, reported AP.

The private foundation said in a statement released Wednesday it hasn’t determined how it will allocate the money, but will use the funds to “support the range of activities required to develop and manufacture generic versions” of the drug, molnupiravir.

Merck & Co. has officially applied for US emergency use authorization for its oral pill to treat mild-to-moderate COVID-19. If approved, the Merck pill will become the first oral antiviral medication against the respiratory disease. All other approved treatments against COVID-19 require an injection.

An antiviral pill that people could take at home to reduce their symptoms and speed recovery could prove ground-breaking, easing the crushing caseload on US hospitals and helping to curb outbreaks in poorer countries with weak healthcare systems.

Merck has licensed its technology with generic drug manufacturers in India. Under the agreement, the company said it will provide licenses to manufacturers to supply the drug to India and more than 100 other lower and middle income countries. It’s unclear how much of the generic drug could be available for use.

The Gates Foundation says its funding is also intended to help ready regulatory, delivery and other pathways in order to make the pill more accessible, if it becomes available.

The Food and Drug Administration hasn’t authorized the pill, and its outside experts are expected to meet on Nov. 30 to scrutinize the drug. If cleared by regulators, the drug will be the first pill available to treat COVID-19.

Trevor Mundel, the president of the foundation’s global health program, believes the generic manufacturers won’t ramp up their manufacturing unless they know there will be demand, and are likely to wait until next year to begin production.

Merck and its partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, have said early results for the pill showed high-risk patients who received it within five days of COVID-19 symptoms had about half the rate of hospitalization and deaths.

Assuming FDA approval, the US government has agreed to buy enough of the pills to treat 1.7 million people, at a price of roughly $700 for each course of treatment.

Countries in Asia Pacific are rushing to place orders for the latest weapon against COVID-19 — an antiviral pill that isn't even authorized for use yet, CNN reported.

Already, at least eight countries or territories in the Asia-Pacific region have signed deals or are in talks to procure the drug, according to analytics company Airfinity, including New Zealand, Australia, and South Korea, all of which were relatively slow to start their vaccine programs, the report said.

Experts caution that Asia's race to stock up on the pill could see a repeat of the vaccine grab last year, when wealthier countries were accused of hoarding doses as lower-income countries missed out, the report said.

"(Molnupiravir) really does have the potential — the potential — to change the game a bit," said Rachel Cohen, the North American executive director at non-profit Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative.

"We need to make sure that we don't repeat history — that we don't fall into the same patterns or repeat the same mistakes that we saw for COVID vaccines."

According to Airfinity data, 10 countries or territories are in negotiations or have signed deals for the pill — and eight of them are in Asia-Pacific. Some of those countries may be trying to avoid mistakes of the past when slow orders led to delayed vaccine rollouts, the report said. — Agencies


October 20, 2021
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