Nearly 30 firms to make generic version of Merck’s COVID-19 pill

Nearly 30 generic drugmakers in Asia, Africa and the Middle East will make inexpensive versions of Merck’s COVID-19 pill molnupiravir, according to a report.
Sandra Levy
Senior Editor
Sandra Levy profile picture

Nearly 30 generic drugmakers in Asia, Africa and the Middle East will make inexpensive versions of Merck's COVID-19 pill molnupiravir, under a landmark U.N.-backed deal to give poorer nations wider access to a drug seen as a weapon in fighting the pandemic, according to several reports, including Reuters.

Under the deal, negotiated by the U.N.-backed Medicines Patent Pool with Merck, the U.S. company will not receive royalties for the sale of the low-cost version of the pill while the pandemic continues.

The MPP said the deal stipulated the pill would be distributed to 105 less-developed nations.

[Read more: Merck, Ridgeback seeks FDA emergency use clearance for COVID-19 treatment]

A molnupiravir course of 40 pills for five days is expected to cost about $20 in poorer nations, an MPP official involved in the talks with drugmakers told Reuters, citing initial estimates from drugmakers, which are subject to change.

That is far below the $700 per course the United States agreed to pay for an initial delivery of 1.7 million courses, but twice as high as first estimated by the World Health Organization-backed program to procure COVID-19 drugs and vaccines for the world. 

The new agreement allows 27 generic drugmakers from India, China and other countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East to produce ingredients and the finished drug.

[Read More: FDA green-lights Alembic’s generic Comtan]

An MPP spokesperson said deliveries from some firms covered by the deal could start as early as February. However, that will be subject to regulatory approval.

While molnupiravir is in use in the United States after approval in December, some other Western countries have cancelled or are reconsidering orders after the drug showed low efficacy in trials, according to the report.

Molnupiravir also has not been approved by the World Health Organization, which makes its sale at the moment not possible in most developing countries with limited regulatory resources for national authorizations, the report said.

The report noted that the drug can already be sold in India, after it received emergency approval by the national regulator, but it is not currently recommended for use because of safety risks.

[Read More: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upholds validity of Novartis’ Gilenya dosage regimen patent]

The developers of molnupiravir, which alongside Merck are U.S. firm Ridgeback Biotherapeutics and Emory University, will not receive royalties for the sale of the low-cost versions made by generic drugmakers while COVID-19 remains classified as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the WHO.

Bangladesh's Beximco , India's Natco. South Africa's Aspen Pharmacare and China's Fosun Pharma are among generics firms that will produce the finished product.

Other companies, including India's Dr. Reddy's had struck earlier deals with Merck for the production of molnupiravir. Dr. Reddy's will sell molnupiravir at $18.8 per course, according to the report. 

The MPP spokesperson said there was no firm estimate yet of the likely output from generics makers covered by the deal, but that poorer nations' demand was expected to be largely covered.

The MPP works to increase access to life-saving medicines for poorer countries. It also has an agreement with Pfizer for the sub-licensing of its COVID-19 pill paxlovid to generics drugmakers.