According to international health organisations, the strategy to push out Merck & Co's promising antiviral medication to treat COVID-19 risks replicating the disparities of vaccine distribution, perhaps leaving the nations with the greatest need at the rear of the queue once again.
For example, only about 5 per cent of Africa’s population is immunised, creating an urgent need for therapeutics that could keep people out of hospitals. That compares with more than a 70 per cent inoculation rate in most wealthy nations. Merck on October 11 applied for US emergency clearance of the first pill for COVID-19 after it cut hospitalisations and deaths by 50 per cent in a large clinical trial. The medicine could gain authorisation as soon as December.
The firm has taken the unusual pandemic step of licencing several generics of its antiviral molnupiravir before its branded version was even authorised for marketing. But international health officials said even that is not enough for the pill to reach many in low- and middle-income countries in large enough numbers, while noting shortcomings and red tape among global organisations that could further slow distribution.
In addition, its licencing deals with eight Indian drugmakers will allow cheaper generic versions for 109 low- and middle-income countries including in Africa, a move international groups acknowledge is a positive concession. But as wealthy nations secure molnupiravir deals — the US has already locked up 1.7 million courses with an option for 3.5 million more by January 2023 at about $700 per course — concerns grow over who might be left out.