Dozens of firms to make cheap version of Merck COVID pill for poorer nations

January 20, 2022 - 10:38 PM
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. (Merck & Co Inc/Handout via Reuters)
  • Deal negotiated by U.N.-backed agency to expand output of drug
  • Nearly 30 firms to sell low-cost molnupiravir in 105 nations
  • Asian, African makers may sell at $20, no royalties for now

BRUSSELS — A U.N.-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 pill, which in December received emergency approval in the United States, reduces hospitalizations and deaths of high-risk patients by around 30%, according to clinical trial results.

The deal, negotiated by the U.N.-backed Medicines Patent Pool (MPP) with Merck, will expand output by increasing the number of companies that will produce the drug, after Merck entered into licensing agreements with eight Indian drugmakers in October.

The new agreement 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 the deal stipulated the pill would be distributed to 105 less-developed nations. A spokesperson later said deliveries from some firms covered by the deal could start as early as February.

A molnupiravir course of 40 pills for five days is expected to cost about $20 in poorer nations, an MPP official involved in the talks with drugmakers told Reuters, citing initial estimates from drugmakers, which are subject to change.

That is far below the $700 per course the United States agreed to pay for an initial delivery of 1.7 million courses, but twice as high as first estimated by the World Health Organization (WHO)-backed program to procure COVID-19 drugs and vaccines for the world.

No royalties, for now 

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

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.

Other companies, including India’s Dr Reddy’s Laboratories , had struck earlier deals with Merck for the production of molnupiravir. Dr Reddy’s will sell molnupiravir at 1,400 rupees ($18.8) per course.

The MPP spokesperson said there was no firm estimate yet of the likely output from generics makers covered by the deal, but that poorer nations’ demand was expected to be largely covered.

The MPP works to increase access to life-saving medicines for poorer countries. It also has an agreement with Pfizer for the sub-licensing of its COVID-19 pill paxlovid to generics drugmakers. —Reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio Editing by David Goodman and Mark Potter