Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2778

Anti-Covid tablet is a bitter pill for the poor

Issue 2778
Big Pharma firm Merck’s molnupiravir treatment is expected to be approved by the NHS before the end of the year.
Big Pharma firm Merck’s molnupiravir treatment is expected to be approved by the NHS before the end of the year. (Pic: Jernej Furman/Flickr)

New drugs with the potential to cut Covid hospitalisations and save many thousands of lives are about to hit the global market.

These latest antivirals come as pills rather than injections, meaning they are easy to distribute and can be taken at home.

The treatments been shown to reduce the chances of the most vulnerable people getting severe Covid symptoms. And they can stop some people from contracting the illness altogether.

This should be news the whole world can celebrate.


But, as with the vaccine programme, it appears the new antivirals will only be widely available in the ­richest countries.

Big Pharma giant Merck is ahead of the pack with its molnupiravir treatment. This is expected to gain approval in the US and Britain before the end of the year.

The firm is keen to suggest its pills will be available in even the poorest countries.Company bosses announced recently that they will allow generic manufacturers in India to sell the pills at a reduced price in more than 100 low income nations.

Most Sub-Saharan African countries, where vaccination rates are as low as 3 percent, are covered by the deal.

But this apparent act of generosity is nonsense—and Merck knows it. Firstly, half of all covid infections in low and middle income nations in the first six months of this year occurred in 32 countries that are specifically excluded from Merck’s deal.

That’s because the firm wants middle income countries, including Brazil, Russia and Malaysia, to pay much closer to its full asking price of £515 per pill. The Indian firms, by contrast, may charge £7 per pill.

Second, there’s little value in having treatment unless a country first has an efficient testing system.

Few Sub-Saharan African countries, where government health spending per person can be as low as £25 a year, have a testing system or money for antivirals. So why is Merck putting on this theatre show of benevolence?

The firm was associated with selling HIV medications in southern Africa at inflated prices—and suing the South African government for attempting to import cheaper treatments.

As the HIV/Aids pandemic ripped through Africa, Big Pharma was busy lining its pockets in ways most people found sickening.


Merck’s corporate reputation was torn to pieces by a global campaign that targeted its offices and called for a boycott.

Its bosses today don’t want to repeat the past.

But they also fear if Big Pharma appears to be doing nothing to help the availability of new drugs, then governments may take matters into their own hands.

Their worst nightmare is governments starting to use “compulsory licencing”.

With the pandemic as justification, countries could use emergency laws to ­override intellectual property restrictions to allow the cheap ­manufacture of Covid medications. And, if the danger of the pandemic was a good enough reason to compulsory licence Covid treatments, why not a range of patented drugs?

Merck knows there’s little or no money to be made in the poorest countries of the Global South, but there’s a pot of gold in the West.


Already the US government has bought up at least 20 percent of Merck’s entire production of molnupiravir this year.

The bill for 1.7 million doses came to a staggering £870 million. Australia, South Korea and New Zealand have all signed similar deals.

The NHS in Britain last week announced that it has bought a share too.

The great tragedy is, if an antiviral treatment was available globally, it could improve all of humanity’s chances of escaping Covid.

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