After international efforts to develop COVID-19 vaccines, drugmakers directed their resources to develop safe, effective treatments. Pfizer recently announced the results of the second phase of trials of paxlovid, a COVID-19 antiviral oral treatment that proved to be 89 percent effective in preventing hospitalization or death among infected people.
“Today’s news is a real game-changer in the global efforts to halt the devastation of this pandemic. These data suggest that our oral antiviral candidate, if approved or authorized by regulatory authorities, has the potential to save patients’ lives, reduce the severity of COVID-19 infections, and eliminate up to nine out of ten hospitalizations,” said through a press release Albert Bourla, Chairman and CEO, Pfizer.
Just when Merck seemed to lead the race to develop a COVID-19 treatment by far, following the UK’s regulatory agency emergency use authorization (EUA), the also US-based drugmaker Pfizer moved forward with paxlovid’s analyses. The interim analysis of the phase II-III data included 1,219 adults enrolled by Sept. 29, 2021. Among participants who received the treatments within three days of COVID-19 symptoms starting, the risk of hospitalization or death was 89 percent lower in the paxlovid group than the placebo group, reported the drugmaker.
Unlike COVID-19 vaccines, which target the spike protein on the outside of the virus, both Pfizer’s and Merck’s drugs are designed to prevent the coronavirus from multiplying. While paxlovid blocks the activity of a key enzyme that helps the virus replicate, molnupiravir introduces errors into the RNA of SARS-CoV-2.
In addition to the approval of molnupiravir and the purchase of 480,000 treatments, the UK government purchased 250,000 courses of paxlovid. Pfizer plans to submit the recent data as part of its ongoing rolling submission to the US FDA for EUA “as soon as possible,” while Merck is expecting the regulator’s decision by the end of November, according to Javier Báez-Villaseñor Moreno, Associate Director, Government Vaccines, Medical Affairs, Merck México.
Equitable Access Across the World
COVID-19 vaccines have not had equal distribution across the world, with higher-income countries hoarding most of the vaccines, as WHO has reported. To prevent this, if paxlovid is approved, Pfizer assured it is committed to working toward equitable access to the oral treatment for all people, through a tiered pricing approach based on the income level of each country. “High and upper-middle income countries will pay more than lower income countries.”
In comparison, to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 treatments across the world, Merck made a voluntary deal with the UN-backed Medicines Patent Pool to share its molnupiravir’s formula to be manufactured and sold cheaply in countries where vaccines are in short supply. Thanks to this deal, generic drugmakers in developing countries will be able to market the COVID-19 pill for US$20 per treatment, which lasts five days, compared to the US$712 that the US government agreed to pay Merck for its initial purchase, as reported by MBN.