According to the manufacturer of molnupiravir, Merck, the drug reduces the risk of hospitalisation if taken within days of being infected by the coronavirus. Developed in a US lab in collaboration with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, the wonderpill may even help lower the risk of death from COVID-19. The Gates Foundation will release funds to help other companies develop cheaper, generic forms of the drug, and has called on the donours to join the campaign.
Countries like India stand to benefit from the move and Merck has already granted the necessary licenses.
The £87million ($120million) is part of the foundation’s ongoing effort to support vaccine access, research and development, and drug manufacturing worldwide.
The foundation has already provided some £1.45billion ($1.9billion) in funding since the start of the pandemic.
Melinda French, the foundation’s co-chair and Bill Gates’s former wife, said: “To end this pandemic, we need to ensure that everyone, no matter where they live in the world, has access to life-saving health products.
“The unjust reality, however, is that low-income countries have had to wait for everything from personal protective equipment to vaccines. That is unacceptable.
“Today’s commitment will ensure that more people in more countries get access to the promising drug molnupiravir, but it’s not the end of the story – we need other donors, including foundations and governments, to act.”
The Covid drug is administered in tablet form, making it an easier, temporary alternative to vaccines.
The pill is being reviewed for approval in the US by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Initial data published by Merck suggest the drug reduces the risk of serious disease and death from Covid by half.
If approved, it would be the first oral outpatient drug to treat patients suffering from mild and moderate infections.
According to the foundation, the breakthrough will help reduce the strain on hospitals and save lives.
However, it will be up to the World Health Organization (WHO) and national governments to decide whether the drug can be rolled out for public use.
John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said: “Africa CDC and the Africa Union have been tracking the exciting developments on the antiviral, molnupiravir.
“In order to make sure that Africa is not left behind, we have been working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation colleagues on various mechanisms they can facilitate, once all of the regulatory processes are completed and the drug is officially made available to the world.”
Merck has said it will produce enough doses this year to roll out 10 million courses of treatment.
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Mr Gates said: “Merck has taken important steps to make this drug available as a COVID-19 therapy, including negotiating licenses with generics manufacturers to increase supply.
“We are pleased to work alongside these efforts to ensure affordability and availability in lower-income countries.
“Making life-saving drugs like these available to everyone who needs them is what is necessary to end the acute phase of the pandemic, and open pathways to recovery.”
However, there is some concern the supply could prioritise richer nations that have already seen success with vaccine rollouts.
Trevor Mundel, president of the Global Health Division at the Gates Foundation, told AFP this was the case when the global supply of vaccines was bought out by the wealthier nations.
Companies developing a generic version of molnupiravir could help offset this problem.
Mr Mundel said: “Some of them have said ‘We can easily do 10 million courses a month if we get up to our high capacity.
“But the problem is that they probably won’t do that until they see what the demand is and who will be paying for this.
“So that’s what we want to accelerate, we want them to not wait” to start production.”