UK becomes first country to authorise Merck's antiviral Covid pilltext_fields
The UK has approved a Covid-19 antiviral pill jointly developed by US-based Merck & Co Inc and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics to become the first country in the world to recommend the drug, Molnupiravir.
The nod is the first for an oral antiviral treatment for Covid-19 and the first for a coronavirus disease drug that will be administered widely in the community.
"We are now working across government and the NHS to urgently get this treatment to patients initially through a national study so we can collect more data on how antivirals work in a mostly vaccinated population," UK vaccines minister Maggie Throup told parliament.
Britain's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) recommended the drug, molnupiravir, be used as soon as possible following a positive COVID-19 test and within five days of the onset of symptoms, citing clinical data.
Merck's Molnupiravir has been closely watched since data last month showed it could halve the chances of dying or being hospitalised for those most at risk of developing severe COVID-19 when given early in the illness.
The British government and the country's National Health Service (NHS) will confirm how the treatment will be deployed to patients in "due course".
"We are working at pace across the government and with the NHS to set out plans to deploy molnupiravir to patients through a national study as soon as possible," health secretary Sajid Javid said in a statement.
The speedy approval in Britain comes as the government struggles to tame soaring infections.
The country has about 40,000 daily cases of COVID-19, according to the latest seven-day average. That total is second only to the roughly 74,000 a day in the United States, which has five times more people.
Data released on Wednesday night showed COVID-19 prevalence in England hit its highest level on record last month, led by a high number of cases in children and a surge in the southwest of the country.
Last month, Britain agreed on a deal with Merck to secure 480,000 courses of molnupiravir.
In a separate statement, Merck said it was expecting to produce 10 million courses of the treatment by the end of this year, with at least 20 million sets to be manufactured in 2022.
The U.S. based drugmaker's shares were up 2.1% at $90.54 before the market opened.
Merck's molnupiravir is also being studied in a late-stage trial for preventing infection.
Viral sequencing done so far has shown molnupiravir is effective against all variants of the coronavirus, Merck has said, including the more-infectious Delta, which is responsible for the worldwide surge in hospitalizations and deaths recently.
While it is not yet clear when Merck will deliver doses to Britain, the company has said it is committed to providing timely access to its drug globally with plans for tiered pricing aligned with a country's ability to pay.