Oct 20, 2021 - World

Gates Foundation to send $120 million of COVID antiviral pills to lower-income countries

Illustration of money pouring into a prescription bottle. 

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said Wednesday it will funnel up to $120 million worth of molnupiravir, an experimental antiviral COVID-19 treatment from Merck, to lower-income countries.

Why it matters: The foundation and others see the antiviral pill's promising results against severe COVID-19 and easy distribution as a way to target countries with low vaccination rates.

Context: The deal will go through once the drug is authorized by U.S. regulators, they said. Merck along with its partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics last week submitted an application to the Food and Drug Administration for an emergency use authorization that will be reviewed by the agency in late November.

The big picture: Merck voluntarily allowed generic manufacturers in India to sell the pills at a far lower price in more than 100 poorer countries, differing from vaccine manufacturers.

  • Most nations in Africa, where vaccination rates are as low as 3%, are included in this deal.
  • Few medicines for COVID-19 treatment have shown some benefits like monoclonal antibodies, but those are costly and complex to administer, an unfortunate combination for remote or poor nations.

Yes, but: It's unclear how much of the drug and its generics will be available by next year and whether raw materials to make the drug can sustain demand, per the New York Times.

  • The company has noted COVID-19 testing is a recommended follow-up while taking the drug, another unreliable supply issue in many countries.

Reality check: There is still a call from experts to prioritize lower-income countries on all fronts. World leaders and the Biden administration lack a functional plan in place to vaccinate the world, Axios' Dave Lawler writes.

What they're saying: "The unjust reality, however, is that low-income countries have had to wait for everything from personal protective equipment to vaccines. That is unacceptable," said Melinda French Gates, co-chair of the Gates Foundation, said in a statement.

  • "Today's commitment will ensure that more people in more countries get access to the promising drug molnupiravir, but it's not the end of the story — we need other donors, including foundations and governments, to act."

The bottom line: The populations that still remain vulnerable to COVID-19 need affordable medicines as widespread vaccination in their countries continues to lag.

Go deeper