Pfizer and UN-backed group reach deal to produce Covid pill in low-income countries

A person walks past Pfizer's headquarters in New York, USA, November 2021. (Keystone/EPA/Justin Lane)

Pfizer has signed a licensing deal with the Geneva-based Medicines Patent Pool (MPP) that will allow manufacturers to supply its experimental oral Covid-19 antiviral treatment to 95 low and middle-income countries, the pharmaceutical company and the organisation announced Tuesday.

The pill cuts the chance of hospitalisation or death for adults at risk of severe illness from Covid-19 by nearly 90 per cent in its clinical trial, according to Pfizer. It will be used in combination with the HIV drug ritonavir, which is already widely available.

“This license is so important because...this oral drug is particularly well-suited for low- and middle-income countries and could play a critical role in saving lives, contributing to global efforts to fight the current pandemic,” said Charles Gore, executive director of MPP, which was formed by Unitaid a decade ago.

The agreement will allow MPP to grant sub-licenses to generic manufacturers to make their own version of the Pfizer drug, which will speed up its distribution in low and middle-income nations.

The deal comes after rival Merck signed a similar agreement last month with the MPP to distribute its Covid-19 pill to more than 105 countries worldwide. It is also the first time Pfizer has agreed to share the technology behind one of its Covid-19 medical products, including its widely used vaccine.

“We believe oral antiviral treatments can play a vital role in reducing the severity of Covid infections, decreasing the strain on our healthcare systems and saving lives,” said Albert Bourla, Pfizer's chairman and chief executive.

“We must work to ensure that all people – regardless of where they live or their circumstances – have access to these breakthroughs, and we are pleased to be able to work with MPP to further our commitment to equity.”

The 95 countries in the license agreement include all low- and lower-middle-income countries and some upper-middle-income countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, like the Merck agreement, the deal excludes some big countries that have been hit the hardest by Covid-19 outbreaks such as Brazil. Health officials have warned that this could prevent medicine from reaching people in large enough numbers.

Pfizer will waive royalties on sales in low-income countries, Unitaid’s Hervé Verhoosel told a press conference in Geneva. It will also waive them in all other countries under the agreement as long as Covid-19 is classified as a public health emergency of international concern by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The drug company has said it expects to manufacture 180,000 treatment courses by the end of next month and at least 60 million by the end of 2022. It has said it will price the supply it produces using a tiered approach based on the income level of each country.

The MPP was founded in 2011 to help provide treatments for HIV / Aids. It expanded last year to include Covid-19 treatments and has been liaising with companies to improve access to their medicines and pool intellectual property.