Merck to Allow Other Drugmakers to Produce Lifesaving COVID Pill for Poorer Countries

Pharmaceutical company Merck has agreed to permit other drug manufacturers to produce its potentially lifesaving COVID-19 treatment pill in an effort to curb the numbers of hospitalizations and deaths in poorer countries, the Associated Press reported.

The Medicines Patent Pool, a United Nations-backed organization, announced in a statement Wednesday that it had entered into a voluntary licensing agreement for the pill with Merck and its partner, Ridgeback Biotherapeutics.

Molnupiravir, the first pill shown to be able to treat COVID-19, helped reduce hospitalizations and deaths by half in trials among people experiencing early symptoms of the virus, according to Merck. Results in the study were so strong that independent medical experts who were monitoring the testing recommended that they stop early, AP reported.

By securing the agreement with Merck, the Medicines Patent Pool will be able to provide licenses to other companies that receive approval to manufacture the drug. Royalties will not go to Merck or Ridgeback Biotherapeutics while the World Health Organization has COVID-19 designated as a global emergency, according to AP.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Merck Building
Pharmaceutical company Merck has agreed to permit other drug manufacturers to produce its potentially lifesaving COVID-19 treatment pill in an effort to curb the numbers of hospitalizations and deaths in poorer countries. Above, the exterior of the Merck offices in Palo Alto, California, on July 17, 2012. Paul Sakuma/AP Photo

Charles Gore, the executive director of the Medicines Patent Pool, said the early results for molnupiravir were "compelling" and that he hoped this first voluntary licensing agreement for a COVID-19 treatment would lead to others.

Despite repeated requests from governments and health officials, no vaccine makers have agreed to a similar deal. A hub set up by WHO in South Africa intended to share messenger RNA vaccine recipes and technologies has not enticed a single pharmaceutical to join.

Merck has requested its pill be licensed by both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the European Medicines Agency, decisions that could come within weeks.

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

It would also bolster a two-pronged approach to the pandemic: treatment by way of medication and prevention, primarily through vaccinations.

The charity Doctors Without Borders welcomed the agreement Merck struck to share its COVID-19 pill but said it didn't go far enough.

"The license excludes key upper-middle-income countries like Brazil and China from its territory, where there are strong, established capacity to produce and supply antiviral medicines," said Yuanqiong Hu, a senior legal and policy adviser at Doctors Without Borders, who called the deal "disappointing."

Merck Lab Coat
Merck said that its COVID-19 treatment pill, molnupiravir, helped reduce hospitalizations and deaths by half among people experiencing early symptoms of the virus. Above, a patch with the Merck logo on a scientist's lab coat in West Point, Pennsylvania, on February 28, 2013. Matt Rourke/AP Photo