Merck announced on Wednesday that it will share its antiviral pill to treat COVID-19 with developing countries in a move to broaden access to the promising treatment.
Merck and its partner, Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, said they had entered a licensing agreement for the treatment with the Medicines Patent Pool (MPP), a United Nations-backed organization, that will allow the pill to be shared with 105 low- and middle-income countries.
Merck, Ridgeback and Emory University, where it was invented, will not receive royalties from the license as long as COVID-19 is still a public health emergency of international concern, as designated by the World Health Organization.
The drug, known as molnupiravir, was shown in trial results released earlier this month to reduce the risk of hospitalization or death from COVID-19 by about 50 percent.
The move by Merck and its partners could be an important precedent, given that advocates are pushing other companies, including COVID-19 vaccine makers, to also share their formulas and know-how with developing countries.
"This transparent, public health-driven agreement is MPP’s first voluntary license for a COVID-19 medical technology, and we hope that Merck’s agreement with MPP will be a strong encouragement to others," said Charles Gore, executive director of the Medicines Patent Pool.
The drug is still in the process of going through the Food and Drug Administration's authorization, and access in other countries is also subject to action from local regulators.
"Important step by Merck, which will further highlight the need for measures needed to convince and to enable more COVID vaccine manufacturers to take similar steps," tweeted Tom Bollyky, director of the global health program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Once the Food and Drug Administration does act, experts are hopeful that the treatment will be a major step forward in the fight against the pandemic. As a pill, it is easier to administer and could be more widely available than other treatments like monoclonal antibodies that require infusions.
Still, experts have emphasized that the treatment is not a substitute for vaccination, which can prevent someone from getting infected with COVID-19 in the first place.
Updated at 8:41 a.m.