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This undated image provided by Merck & Co. shows their new antiviral drug. (Merck & Co. via AP)

LONDON (AP) – Pharmaceutical company Merck has agreed to allow other drugmakers to produce its COVID-19 pill, in a bid to help millions in poorer countries gain access to the drug potentially life-saving, a United Nations-backed public health organization said Wednesday.

The Medicines Patent Pool said in a statement it has signed a voluntary licensing agreement for molnupiravir with Merck and its partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics.

The agreement will allow the Medicines Patent Pool to grant further licenses to qualified companies that are approved to manufacture the drug. None of the drugmakers will receive royalties under the deal as long as the World Health Organization considers COVID-19 to be a global emergency. Molnupiravir is the first pill shown to treat disease.

Charles Gore, executive director of the Medicines Patent Pool, said the first results for molnupiravir were “compelling” and that he hoped this first voluntary licensing agreement for a COVID-19 treatment would lead to others.

Despite repeated requests from governments and health officials, no vaccine manufacturer has agreed to a similar deal. A hub set up by WHO in South Africa to share messenger RNA vaccine recipes and technologies has not prompted a single pharmaceutical to join.

Merck has requested that its pill be cleared by both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the European Medicines Agency, decisions that could be made in a matter of weeks.

Merck reported this month that molnupiravir halved hospitalizations and deaths in patients with early symptoms of COVID-19. The results were so strong that independent medical experts overseeing the trial recommended stopping it early.

An antiviral pill people could take at home to reduce symptoms and speed recovery could prove revolutionary, lighten the overwhelming workload on hospitals and help curb epidemics in poorer countries with health systems weak.

It would also reinforce a two-pronged approach to the pandemic: treatment with drugs and prevention, mainly vaccination.

The Doctors Without Borders charity hailed Merck’s deal to share its COVID-19 pill, but said it did not go far enough.

“The license excludes from its territory major upper-middle-income countries like Brazil and China, where there is a strong and established capacity to produce and supply antiviral drugs,” said Yuanqiong Hu, legal adviser and main policy at Doctors Without Borders, which called the agreement “disappointing”.


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