Merck's anti-viral pill, molnupiravar. Screenshot, Reuters video at Washington Post

Drug company Pfizer has agreed to license its new treatment for COVID-19 to be manufactured at low cost in poorer companies through a United Nations nonprofit, which will make the pills available in 95 countries where about half the world's population lives. That follows a similar arrangement last month with Merck to license its anti-COVID drugs through the UN's Medicines Patent Pool (MPP). The arrangements allow the pills to be manufactured and sold in generic form as long as the global emergency is in effect.

This is a very big deal for poorer countries, as the New York Times reports.

"The fact that we now have two manufacturer-anywhere licenses for these two drugs is a big change, and it draws a big contrast with the restrictive licensing so far for vaccines," said James Love, who leads Knowledge Ecology International, a nonprofit that researches access to medical products.

Also yesterday, Pfizer applied to the FDA for emergency use authorization for its drug to be used in the US. Merck also sought emergency US approval of its drug, called molnupiravir, in October.


Earlier this month, Pfizer said that in clinical trials, its pill, called paxlovid, could reduce chances of hospitalization or death by up to 89 percent if the five-day course of treatment is started within three days of the first COVID symptoms.

In a statement, Pfizer said it would not collect royalties on the pills in low-income countries while the emergency is in effect:

"Oral antiviral treatments can play a vital role in reducing the severity of COVID-19 infections, decreasing the strain on our healthcare systems and saving lives," said Albert Bourla, Pfizer's chairman and CEO in a statement.

"We must work to ensure that all people — regardless of where they live or their circumstances — have access to these breakthroughs, and we are pleased to be able to work with MPP to further our commitment to equity," he said.

Gosh, that's swell, but how about preventing the spread of the virus worldwide by also licensing the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine through the MPP too? Think you might do that?

Bourla, however, has been a vocal critic of those urging Pfizer to share its vaccine formula, which the company developed with the German firm BioNTech. He called the idea "nonsense" and "dangerous" at a forum last year.

The Washington Post reports that a Pfizer spokeperson said the company is worried about whether manufacturers "without a proven track record" can make vaccines with the quality that's needed. Unlike the two most-used vaccines in the US, which need to be kept at extremely low temperatures, the pills can be stored and transported at room temperature.

WaPo also explains that that two pills use slightly different mechanisms to stop the virus from replicating in the human body, and that too is a big deal:

Molnupiravir works by garbling the virus's genome, while paxlovid uses an experimental molecule to block an enzyme that the coronavirus needs to make copies of itself. The Pfizer molecule must be given in combination with ritonavir, an antiviral drug used to treat HIV that helps slow the molecule's breakdown.

Having a combination of pills available could help prevent the coronavirus from developing a resistance to treatment, said Katherine Seley-Radtke, a chemistry professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

"If you can stop the replication at several steps or with multiple drugs, you exponentially decrease your chance of the virus developing resistance," she said.

Both Pfizer and Merck's antiviral treatments need to be started shortly after symptoms start, and to be truly effective in curbing the pandemic, patients will need to have access to testing, which is still not widely available in all developing countries. Yes, even in late 2021, for chrissakes.

Still, it's a significant step toward getting the pandemic under control, and once the treatments are available in the US, we look forward to idiots on Twitter calling them poison that's not nearly as good as whatever new snake oil is being pushed by the rightwing medical misinformation complex. Maybe dog laxatives. Might as well be dog laxatives.

[NYT / WaPo]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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