The next big breakthrough in the fight against COVID-19 is here and India has a chance to be among the first nations to manufacture billions of doses of a series of new anti-viral pills.
The first drug is called Molnupiravir, developed by Merck. This anti-Covid drug is now being manufactured by 13 Indian firms and has been cleared for use by the government.
In the last few months, Pfizer and Merck have developed Paxlovid and Molnupiravir, respectively. The two pills have shown extremely high efficacy in anti-COVID-19 therapy.
On November 5, Pfizer said Paxlovid cut hospitalisation rates by nearly 90 per cent.
Merck initially reported that its pill, Molnupiravir, cut rates of hospitalisation and death by 50 per cent if treatment was given within five days of onset of infection. But subsequent studies show an efficacy of 30 per cent.
Both pills are given for five days. Pfizer’s regimen is three pills in the morning and three at night. Merck’s drug is taken four times in the morning and four times at night.
Pfizer’s drug is in a class of medicines called “protease inhibitors” and blocks an enzyme that the coronavirus needs to multiply.
Merck’s pill is called a “nucleoside analogue” that introduces errors into the genetic code of the virus, which makes it tough for the coronavirus virus to evolve.
But how much do they all cost?
The US government has already secured millions of doses of the Pfizer and Merck drugs in deals worth billions of dollars. It’s expensive – at about $700 per course, or more than Rs 52,000, for Merck’s drug course.
Britain has already secured 2.5 lakh courses of the Pfizer drug.
A World Health Organisation, or WHO, programme aims to get the drugs for as little as $10 dollars (Rs 700 approximately) per course eventually.
There is good news for India. Merck has entered into non-exclusive voluntary licensing agreements with established Indian generic makers, including Cipla, Dr Reddy’s Laboratories, Emcure Pharmaceuticals, Hetero Labs, and Sun Pharmaceutical. This means the drug will be in India at a subsidised cost.
That’s because Merck says it will use a tiered pricing strategy for developing countries. Pfizer says they will eventually come close to this price.