Merck's COVID Pills Price Could Change From $700 Federal Government Paid

Drugmaker Merck has said that its COVID-19 pill treatment may not end up costing the reported $700 per patient if approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

On Monday, Merck submitted an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) application to the FDA to approve molnupiravir, an oral COVID-19 treatment that tests show can reduce the risk of death or hospitalization for people suffering mild-to-moderate symptoms by 50 percent. If approved, the pills could be available to the public by the end of the year.

On October 1, when Merck declared results of the testing of molnupiravir, The New York Times reported that the federal government had already placed an order for 1.7 million courses of treatment, at a cost of $700 per patient.

As reported by Quartz, Merck expects to produce 10 million courses of the drug before the end of 2021, meaning they could earn $7 billion from molnupiravir, making it one of the most lucrative drugs ever. Merck has also begun supply agreements for molnupiravir with other governments worldwide, pending regulatory authorization.

Speaking to The Associated Press, Nicholas Kartsonis, a senior vice president with Merck's infectious disease unit, said the final cost of the treatment will not end up coming to $700 per treatment.

"We set that price before we had any data, so that's just one contract," Kartsonis said. "Obviously we're going to be responsible about this and make this drug as accessible to as many people around the world as we can."

AP notes that the current $700 figure is less than half the price of the COVID antibody drugs purchased by the U.S. government, which cost around more than $2,000 per infusion.

In a statement to Newsweek, a Merck spokesperson added that estimates of production cost of manufacturing by generics makers don't take into account the "billions that are invested by the research-based pharmaceutical industry" into research and development.

"It's important to note that Merck has not yet established a price for molnupiravir because it has not been approved for use. We have an advance purchase agreement with the U.S. government and that price is specific to a substantial volume of molnupiravir and does not represent a list price for the US or any other country," the spokesperson said.

Merck added that if the drug becomes approved, they will implement a tiered pricing approach based on World Bank data that recognizes countries' relative ability to finance their health response to the pandemic.

"That said, we are very optimistic about the clinical data for molnupiravir, and have only had the clinical data for a week, so we still need to do more detailed health care economic analyses," the spokesperson said.

"If approved or authorized, we believe that molnupiravir has the potential to provide significant benefit to patients and value to health care systems.

Heidi Chow, of the Jubilee Debt Campaign, was one of those who condemned the $700 cost that the government paid for molnupiravir as "another example of Big Pharma reaping billions from public investment into research by charging extortionate, rip-off prices for lifesaving COVID drugs."

"This is why we need to waive patents on all COVID treatments and vaccines," Chow tweeted.

Kartsonis told AP that one of the main advantages of the oral drug compared to an injection program is that it could help ease the spread of COVID in poorer countries with less efficient health care systems, as well as ease the pressure on hospitals who have struggled to cope with the rise in new COVID cases in the U.S.

"The value here is that it's a pill so you don't have to deal with the infusion centers and all the factors around that," Kartsonis said. "I think it's a very powerful tool to add to the toolbox."

Andrew Bradley, head of the Mayo Clinic's Coronavirus Task Force, previously told Newsweek: "Oral antivirals could be a real gamechanger in terms of how we treat and manage COVID in an outpatient setting. Hopefully that too would help offset the burden of the need to take care of people in hospital beds."

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A car enters the employee entrance at the headquarters for drug maker Merck on March 9, 2009 in Kenilworth, New Jersey. Chris Hondros/Getty Images