USA – Merck has announced a supply and purchase agreement to give Singapore access to its experimental oral Covid-19 antiviral drug, making Singapore the latest Asian country to try to secure supplies.
The medication, known as molnupiravir, was shown in a phase three trial to reduce the risk of hospitalization or death by around 50 percent in adults with mild to moderate Covid.
Molnupiravir is designed to introduce mutations into the genetic code of the virus to prevent the virus from replicating within the body and would be the first oral antiviral medication for Covid-19.
It has also been shown to be effective against the most common COVID-19 virus variants, including the highly infectious Delta variant.
While vaccinations remain the best form of protection against the virus, health experts hope that a pill like Merck’s will keep the disease from progressing and prevent hospitalizations in those who become infected.
Because it is only a pill, it may save the patient from having to travel to a clinic for a transfusion for treatments such as monoclonal antibodies.
This reduces the risk of an infected patient spreading the virus to medical personnel and avoids potential complications associated with transfusions
At the same time, many other countries still grapple with the challenge of accessing adequate vaccines. The unvaccinated continue to account for the vast majority of hospitalizations and deaths, with approximately 2,000 deaths occurring each day in the United States alone.
As a result, Covid-19 treatments remain an essential component of the pandemic response. However, developing new drugs to treat illnesses is costly and time-consuming, which is why researchers have been eager to find off-the-shelf therapies that have already been deemed safe for use against other illnesses.
New drugs, such as molnupiravir provide the possibility of a more powerful, targeted approach. Because it is administered in the early stages of the disease, a drug like molnupiravir could be especially beneficial.
Pills like Merck’s are considered a sort of “holy grail” for treatments, said Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Program.
“If you can stop the virus before it makes someone very sick, then it’s a game changer in that sense,” he said.
Other pharmaceutical giants are also working on antiviral pills. One created by Pfizer and BioNTech, could be available by the end of this year, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said.
Even with these developments, experts are wary of the cost concerns. Commenting on the cost of antiviral pills, Ryan said that world leaders and public health officials should also think about how much the drug could cost patients.
According to The New York Times, a five-day course of the medication will cost the federal government about US$700 per patient, a third of the current cost of monoclonal antibodies.
Australia has also purchased the Merck pill, and Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan, and Malaysia have expressed interest in purchasing it. The Philippines is hoping that its trial of the pill will grant it access.