US pharmaceutical giant Merck has announced that it has granted a royalty-free license of its COVID-19 treatment molnupiravir to the Medicine Patent Pool (MPP), a United Nations-backed public health organization whose work focuses on providing access to life-saving medicines for low- and middle-income countries.
The deal is expected to help millions of people across the globe to have better outcomes in COVID-19 infections, and will stay in place for as long as COVID-19 is a Public Health Emergency of International Concern as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The drug was invented at Emory University and is developed by Ridgeback Biotherapeutic and Merck. In interim results from its trial, the drug shows potential in preventing people from becoming more severely ill with COVID-19. The data the company presented suggests that the risk of hospitalization and death is cut in half by using this pill.
The agreement struck with MPP will allow the production of molnupiravir in 105 low- and middle-income countries at a fraction of the cost. This will hopefully save hundreds of thousands of lives.
“The interim results for molnupiravir are compelling and we see this oral treatment candidate as a potentially important tool to help address the current health crisis. This transparent, public health-driven agreement is MPP’s first voluntary license for a COVID-19 medical technology, and we hope that Merck’s agreement with MPP will be a strong encouragement to others,” Charles Gore, the executive director of MPP, said in a statement.
The last 11 months have shown a complete failure from the richest countries in the world to tackle the global pandemic as a global issue. Vaccine nationalism has run rampant and pharmaceutical companies continue to hold onto vaccine patents, as just a little over three percent of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose of vaccine.
In South Africa, the company Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines is creating its own mRNA vaccine by reverse-engineering the Moderna shot’s publicly available data and with the support of the WHO. The Moderna vaccine was largely funded by American taxpayers' money, and vaccination for many across the world depends on the goodwill of pharmaceutical companies and wealthy nations.
Depending on how many vaccines become available over the next 14 months, the shortfall of doses worldwide is expected to be in the millions, easily pushing the pandemic into 2023. The longer the virus is allowed to spread to a large fraction of the world population, the higher the risk of a variant that can elude vaccines and current treatments. If that came to pass, it would be a disaster.