Geneva organisation backs breakthrough Covid treatment for poorer countries

Merck & Co, the producer of a new antiviral medication to treat Covid-19, said the pill reduced hospitalisations of people recently infected by 50 per cent. (Keystone/Merck & Co. via AP)

An innovative treatment for Covid-19 which has the potential to prevent much more serious cases from developing early on is set to be licensed for production in most low and middle-income countries.

In a major breakthrough in access to new treatments, a deal reached between the Geneva-based Medicines Patent Pool (MPP) and the pharmaceutical company Merck Sharp & Dohme would allow MPP to sell the new treatment at discounted prices to more than 105 countries worldwide.

Why it’s important. The new drug Molnupiravir, which is currently awaiting approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) and the World Health Organization (WHO), reduces the risks of hospitalisation or death by around 50 per cent among patients with mild or moderate Covid.

If approved by regulatory bodies, the antiviral medication will be the first major Covid medication that can be administered orally to non-hospitalised patients, the WHO said in a statement.

The agreement is a major breakthrough for MPP, a UN-backed non-profit organisation with a long track record of negotiating with big pharmaceutical companies to make expensive new drugs to treat illnesses such as hepatitis and HIV more accessible and affordable globally. This is the first MPP agreement to provide access to Covid-19 treatments.

Since the pandemic began, major pharmaceutical companies have been reluctant to agree to such open-ended licenses for generic production of new Covid vaccines and drugs, meaning they remain expensive and difficult to access for low and middle-income countries.

“This transparent, public health-driven agreement is MPP’s first voluntary licence for a Covid-19 medical technology, and we hope that MSD’s agreement with MPP will be a strong encouragement to others,” said Charles Gore, MPP Executive Director.

Deal sparks mixed reactions. The licensing agreement was welcomed by the WHO and the Geneva-based global health initiative Unitaid as “a positive step towards creating broader access to the treatment as quickly as possible.”

“Other companies developing vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics should consider open and transparent licenses as soon as possible, especially for other promising Covid-19 health technologies, for which we also need to ensure broad supply and affordability in all countries in order to end the pandemic,” said the WHO in a statement.

However, some organisations criticised the agreement for not going far enough. Yuanqiong Hu, senior legal and policy advisor for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Access Campaign said the license excludes key upper-middle-income countries that would be able to produce and supply antiviral medicines, like Brazil and China.

“Middle-income countries excluded from the license had 30 million Covid-19 infections in the first half of 2021, 50 per cent of all infections in low- and middle-income countries,” he said.

Other health organisations acknowledged that there is still a long way to go to making Covid treatments more accessible for poorer countries, and urged other pharmaceutical companies to follow suit.

“Effective, easy to administer, oral treatments that can help to reduce the risk for progression to severe illness may be an important tool to help get the pandemic under control,” said Unitaid's executive director Dr Philippe Duneton in a statement.

“We encourage further efforts in voluntary licensing to ensure that people in low- and middle-income countries can access Covid-19 treatments once authorized by WHO or a stringent regulatory authority.”

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