Pfizer agrees to let other companies make its Covid pill to allow broader global access

LONDON – Drug maker Pfizer Inc. has signed a contract with a UN-backed group to allow other manufacturers to offer their experimental Covid-19 pill, a move that could make treatment available to more than half the world’s population .

In a statement released Tuesday, Pfizer said it would license the antiviral pill to the Geneva-based Medicines Patent Pool, which would allow generic companies to manufacture the pill for use in 95 countries, which make up approximately 53 percent of the world’s population .

The deal excludes some large countries that have suffered devastating coronavirus outbreaks. For example, while a Brazilian pharmaceutical company could get a license to manufacture the pill for export to other countries, the drug could not be made generically for use in Brazil.

Still, health officials said the fact that the deal was closed even before Pfizer’s pill was approved anywhere could help end the pandemic faster.

“It is very important that we are able to give more than 4 billion people access to a drug that appears to be effective and has only just been developed,” said Esteban Burrone, policy director for Medicines Patent Pool .

He estimated that other drug manufacturers could start producing the pill within months, but admitted that the deal would not please everyone.

“We are trying to strike a very delicate balance between the interests of the (company), the sustainability required by generic drug companies, and most importantly, the public health needs of low and middle income countries,” said Burrone.

Under the terms of the agreement, Pfizer will not receive royalties on sales in low-income countries and will waive royalties on sales in all countries covered by the agreement, while Covid-19 remains a public health emergency.

Earlier this month, Pfizer said its pill reduced the risk of hospitalization and death in people with mild to moderate coronavirus infections by nearly 90 percent. Independent experts recommended stopping the company’s study because of the promising results.

Pfizer said it will ask the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other regulators to approve the pill as soon as possible.

Since the pandemic outbreak last year, researchers around the world have tried to create a pill to treat Covid-19 that can be easily taken at home to help relieve symptoms, speed recovery, and keep people away from the hospital. Currently, most Covid-19 treatments must be given intravenously or by injection.

The UK approved Merck’s Covid-19 pill earlier this month, and approval elsewhere is pending. In a similar agreement with the drug patent pool announced in October, Merck agreed to allow other drug manufacturers to make its Covid-19 pill molnupiravir available in 105 poorer countries.

MSF said it was “discouraged” that the Pfizer deal does not make the drug available to the world, noting that the deal announced on Tuesday also excludes countries like China, Argentina and Thailand.

“The world now knows that if we really want to control this pandemic, access to Covid-19 medical instruments must be guaranteed everywhere and for everyone,” said Yuanqiong Hu, a senior legal adviser at MSF.

Pfizer and Merck’s decisions to share their Covid-19 drug patents stand in stark contrast to the refusal of Pfizer and other vaccine manufacturers to release their vaccine prescriptions for wider production. A hub set up by the World Health Organization in South Africa to exchange prescriptions and technologies for messenger RNA vaccines has not attracted a single pharmaceutical to join.

Less than 1 percent of Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccinations went to poorer countries.

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