Merck Accepts More Pharmaceuticals Make Its COVID Pill

Pharmaceutical company Merck has agreed to allow other drug makers around the world to produce its COVID-19 pill with the intention of helping millions of people in the poorest countries, a UN-backed public health organization reported Wednesday.

The Medicines Patent Pool said in a statement that it signed a voluntary license agreement with Merck and its partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics to produce molnupiravir.

The agreement would allow the Medicines Patent Pool to grant future licenses to companies authorized to produce the drug. Under the contract, no drug company would receive royalties as long as the World Health Organization considers COVID-19 to be a global emergency. Molnupiravir is the first pill that has been shown to be effective against this condition.

Charles Gore, executive director of the Medicines Patent Pool, said the first results for molnupiravir were “compelling” and that he hoped that the first voluntary license agreement for one treatment for COVID-19 would make way for others.

Despite repeated requests from governments and health officials, no vaccine producer has agreed to something similar. A center set up by the WHO in South Africa intended to share technologies and recipes for the messenger RNA vaccine has not convinced any drug companies to join.

Merck has requested authorization for its pill from both the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Medicines Agency. They are expected to make a decision in a matter of weeks.

This month, Merck reported that the pill would reduce hospitalizations and deaths by 50% among patients with the first symptoms of COVID-19. The results are so strong that independent medical experts monitoring the tests recommended ending them earlier.

An antiviral pill that people can take at home to reduce their symptoms and speed their recovery could be groundbreaking, alleviating the overwhelming burden of cases in hospitals and helping contain outbreaks in poorer countries with poor health care systems.

It could also promote a double strategy to the pandemic: treatment, in the form of medicine, and prevention, mainly through vaccines.