Oct 5, 2021 - Health

Taxpayers funded development of COVID-19 antiviral pill

Illustration of medical pills with half of the capsule created from paper money.

Illustration: Rae Cook/Axios

The antiviral pill that showed promising results against severe COVID-19 was originally developed at Emory University with $35 million of taxpayer grants.

Why it matters: The federal government consequently owns rights to some of the molnupiravir's patents, which could factor into future purchasing agreements with Merck, which sells the drug.

Flashback: Emory University researchers conducted early-stage testing on molnupiravir from 2013 to 2020 with funds from the National Institutes of Health and Defense Department.

  • Emory then licensed the drug to Ridgeback Biotherapeutics at the start of the pandemic so the drug could get into human clinical trials.
  • The federal government declined to put more money into backing the drug until there was more data.
  • Merck then bought the exclusive rights to sell and manufacture the drug worldwide.
  • Each major patent application for molnupiravir cites federal funding, which means "the U.S. government co-owns molnupiravir and has rights to demand availability at a reasonable price," according to Luis Gil Abinader, a researcher at Knowledge Ecology International, a group that studies intellectual property.

By the numbers: The U.S. government paid $712 per treatment course in June. Each course requires patients to consume 40 pills over five days, so the government paid $17.80 per pill.

  • That is at least four times cheaper than remdesivir, an IV drug that treats COVID-19. But two researchers estimate molnupiravir could be made at $20 per course, or $0.50 per pill, and still include a 10% profit margin.

What they're saying: Merck did not answer questions about federal funding of molnupiravir.

  • The company said it will "implement a tiered pricing approach based on World Bank data that recognizes countries' relative ability to finance their health response to the pandemic."
  • Merck also entered into voluntary licensing agreements with "Aurobindo Pharma, Cipla, Dr. Reddy's Labs, Emcure Pharmaceuticals, Hetero Labs, Sun Pharmaceuticals, Torrent Pharmaceuticals and Viatris, and each will set its own price for 104 countries globally."

The big picture: Federal dollars were also used to back the development of Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine, making that another example where the government owns rights to significant COVID-related intellectual property.

The bottom line: The FDA still needs to validate molnupiravir's results, but "even if one includes the cost of manufacturing the pills, a price one-fifth that [$712] should be sufficient to assure a reasonable return on investment," pharmaceutical author and journalist Merrill Goozner wrote yesterday.

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