New anti-Covid pill is effective against variants

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File photo

Merck Sharp and Dohme (MSD) says it’s in talks with multiple countries, including UAE, to supply the tablet

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Allan Jacob

Published: Mon 1 Nov 2021, 5:32 PM

Last updated: Thu 4 Nov 2021, 1:46 PM

The world may have swallowed a bitter coronavirus pill for more than 18 months. Now, there’s a new ‘wonder tablet’ from Merck Sharp and Dohme (MSD) that could be a game changer against the pandemic, more so in developing countries where vaccine coverage remains a concern.

Molnupiravir, the world’s first oral anti-viral against Covid-19, is awaiting clearance from the European Medicines Agency and the US FDA. Khaleej Times has learnt the company is in talks with the UAE and other countries for supplies of the breakthrough drug.

“We are in discussions with various governments around the world regarding access to Molnupiravir should it be approved or authorized for use by local regulatory agencies, including the UAE,” said Ashraf Mallak, Managing Director, Merck Sharp and Dohme GCC.

The pharma company has signed an agreement with Singapore on access to Molnupiravir once certain regulatory milestones are achieved.

The drug, developed in partnership with Ridgeback Pharmaceuticals, reduced the risk of hospitalization or death by 50 per cent in patients with mild or moderate symptoms in phase 3 trials.

Enthused by the findings, the company sought emergency clearance from the US FDA and the European health regulator. While it awaits approvals from regulatory agencies globally, Merck Sharp and Dohme has been producing the drug at own risk and expects to have 10 million courses of the treatment by the end of the year. More will be produced by next year, company officials said.

To ramp up supplies and make the treatment more affordable (reports claim the US has paid $700 for one course), the company is working with pharma partners in other countries to bring down the costs that could be as low as $12-15.

“Our allocation principles strive for a balanced and equitable distribution across countries, so that impact on population health and health system burden, rather than socio-economic status, is the primary determinant for access,” said Mallak when asked how soon developing countries would get access to the drug.

Merck Sharp and Dohme has a multi-faceted strategy in place that includes granting voluntary licenses to generic manufacturers to increase affordable supply in developing countries. It is also sewing up supply and purchase agreements and allocation processes to ensure demands are met, said the official.

The drug works well against all variants of the coronavirus, including Delta, and is tolerated well among the elderly. However, no trials have been conducted on children, said Mallak.

How Molnupiravir works

Originally developed to treat influenza, two pills of Molnupiravir are administered twice a day for five days. The drug, which derives its name from Mjolnir, (Thor’s hammer), fools the coronavirus but not human cells.

Sars-CoV-2 makes copies of itself by encoding instructions on human cell RNA (Ribonucleic Acid). When Molnupiravir is administered to the patient, it mimics segments of the RNA, causing genetic mutations that prevent the virus from developing. In short, it targets the virus while not harming human cells.

“We’re very comfortable that the drug will be safe if used as intended,” said Daria Hazuda, Merck Sharp and Dohme’s vice-president of infectious-disease discovery and chief science officer recently.

Other Covid antiviral pills

Biotech firm Atea Pharmaceuticals, a US firm, is partnering with Roche based in Switzerland.

Pfizer is also testing a pill that is in phase 2/3 trials for treating people who are newly infected.

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