Govt in talks with Merck for 200,000 courses of anti-Covid pills

Govt in talks with Merck for 200,000 courses of anti-Covid pills

FILE PHOTO: An experimental Covid-19 treatment pill called molnupiravir being developed by Merck & Co Inc and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics LP (Merck & Co Inc/Handout via Reuters)
FILE PHOTO: An experimental Covid-19 treatment pill called molnupiravir being developed by Merck & Co Inc and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics LP (Merck & Co Inc/Handout via Reuters)

The government is in talks with US drugmaker Merck & Co to purchase 200,000 courses of the company's experimental antiviral pill for Covid-19 treatment, an official said on Monday.

Many Asian countries are scrambling to lock in supplies of the potential treatment early after they lagged behind Western nations in Covid-19 vaccine rollouts, hit by tight supplies.

South Korea, Taiwan and Malaysia said they are all in talks to buy Merck's potential treatment, while the Philippines, which is running a trial on the pill, said it hopes its domestic study would allow access to the treatment.

They all declined to provide details on purchase negotiations.

Somsak Akksilp, director-general of the Department of Medical Services (DMS), told Reuters that Thailand is currently working on a purchasing agreement for the antiviral drug, known as molnupiravir.

The molnupiravir pills, designed to introduce errors into the genetic code of the virus, would be the first oral antiviral medication for Covid-19. Interim clinical trials indicated it could reduce by around 50% the chance of hospitalisation or death for patients at risk of severe disease from Covid-19.

"We are now working on a purchasing agreement with Merck that is expected to be completed by this week ... we have pre-booked 200,000 courses," Dr Somsak said. 

He said the pills could arrive as soon as December, though the deal would be subject to the pills' approval by both the United States Food and Drug Administration and the Thai regulator.

Representatives at Merck's Thailand office were not immediately reacheable.

The US company has said it expects to produce 10 million courses of the treatment by the end of 2021. The company has a US government contract to supply 1.7 million courses of molnupiravir at a price of $700 per course.

The company has said it plans a tiered pricing approach based on country income criteria.

In the Philippines, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire told a regular news conference on Monday that, "We see we can have more access to this medicine because we have this clinical trial counterpart." 

According to a report in the New York Times, the Merck anti-viral drug is meant to be taken as four capsules twice a day for five days — a total of 40 pills over the course of treatment.

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