Gates Foundation to send $120M Merck COVID-19 pills to developing countries

Gates Foundation to send $120M Merck COVID-19 pills to developing countries
© Associated Press

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced Tuesday that it will send $120 million worth of Merck’s new COVID-19 treatment pill to developing countries if it is authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The foundation said in a statement that the new multimillion-dollar commitment will “accelerate access to the investigational antiviral drug molnupiravir for lower-income countries as part of its COVID-19 response effort.”

The announcement comes after Merck revealed last week that it requested emergency use authorization for its antiviral COVID-19 pill molnupiravir for adults who test positive for the virus and have mild-to-moderate infections but are at risk of progressing into a severe COVID-19 illness or hospitalization.

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The company filed the request to the FDA after test results showed that the treatment reduced the risk of hospitalization by 50 percent. A decision regarding the pill’s authorization could be made by December.

However, concerns are already growing regarding the distribution of the pill if the FDA authorizes it. Some advocates are worried that distribution of the drug could deepen the inequalities between rich and poor countries, which were exposed during the initial COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

Rich nations have received the vast majority of COVID-19 vaccines.

In more than 50 poor countries, inoculation rates are below 10 percent, according to the World Health Organization, while a number of wealthy nations are seeing vaccination rates that top 70 percent.

Experts are now concerned that the distribution of Merck’s drug could follow a similar pattern.

Melinda French Gates, co-chair of the foundation, called the distribution inequality “unacceptable,” and said the group’s commitment will help ensure that people in more countries have access to the new drug if it is authorized.

“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,” Gates said in a statement.

“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,” she added.