- The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said Tuesday it will spend as much as $120 million to speed access to an experimental COVID-19 pill in lower-income countries.
- If authorized, molnupiravir would be the first oral COVID-19 treatment, a major advance over monoclonal antibodies that are effective but require infusions. For lower-income countries with less developed healthcare infrastructure, a pill to treat COVID-19 could be a boon.
- Merck & Co. and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics developed the medicine, which was recently shown in clinical testing to lower the risk of hospitalization or death by roughly half. The companies filed for emergency U.S. authorization of the pill earlier this month.
The Gates Foundation hopes to reduce the gap in time between when wealthy countries and lower-income nations get access to needed medicines like molnupiravir. The foundation said that, typically, 12 months or more pass before a newly approved drug reaches less developed parts of the world.
The foundation plans to support efforts to develop and manufacture generic versions of the drug, working with companies, procurement agencies and donors. The foundation also made a point of encouraging others to follow its lead in contributing funds to the effort.
Merck has already taken the step of licensing its experimental treatment to five generic manufacturers in India, citing the urgent need to end the pandemic. The company said the agreement should secure supplies of the medicine for India and more than 100 low- and middle-income countries, although that leaves out several dozen nations that have experienced high numbers of infections.
The U.S., meanwhile, has moved quickly to lock down a supply for Americans. In June, the federal government agreed to pay Merck $1.2 billion for about 1.7 million courses of molnupiravir.
Merck and Ridgeback, which licensed molnupiravir from Emory University, are at the forefront of efforts to develop a COVID-19 pill. Merck tested the drug in patients with mild or moderate COVID-19 and the findings were so strong that independent monitors called a halt to the trial so no more patients would be given a placebo.
The results contrast with those announced this week by Atea Pharmaceuticals and Roche, which failed to find an overall benefit for their experimental pill in a Phase 2 study. Atea on Tuesday said the negative results may be explained by a preponderance of young and healthy participants in the trial, their vaccination status and the emergence of different variants during the study.