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Photo illustration: Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Trump administration officials fought over whether — and ultimately declined — to fund the same antiviral drug that Merck announced yesterday significantly reduces hospitalizations and deaths among coronavirus patients.

Why it matters: The Trump administration's decision almost certainly delayed the development of the drug. Having an effective antiviral pill during the Delta wave could have substantially reduced its death toll.

The big picture: At the beginning of the pandemic last year, one group of HHS officials was pushing for the federal government to fund what they saw as a promising new drug. Another group was skeptical of the data available, and the process by which the funding was being requested.

  • What happened is described in detail in a whistleblower complaint filed by former BARDA director Rick Bright, who led the skeptical point of view.

What happened: The drug was developed by an Emory University professor and was first presented to the Trump administration in the fall of 2019.

  • The drug "was presented as a 'miracle cure' for influenza, Ebola and nearly every other virus, even though the developer had not yet conducted clinical trials and no data had been compiled to demonstrate either the efficacy or safety of the drug in humans," Bright wrote.
  • But another top health official, Robert Kadlec, had "indicated his enthusiasm for [the drug]’s potential."
  • BARDA ultimately declined to fund the manufacturing of the drug — which had already received $30 million from the federal government for phase 1 clinical trials — until more data was available.
  • In late February of last year, the Emory researcher and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics asked for federal funding of the drug again, but as a treatment for COVID-19. Officials fought again, and ultimately declined to fund the drug.

Merck and Ridgeback partnered to develop the drug in 2020, and the Biden administration announced in June that it had bought 1.7 million courses of the antiviral pending authorization by the FDA.

  • The company then announced yesterday that the drug reduced the risk of hospitalization or death from COVID-19 by around 50% in a clinical trial.

Between the lines: Of course, there is no telling what would have happened if federal funding had been approved for this particular drug candidate at the time.

What they're saying: "You could have theoretically had this seven, eight months ago maybe," said a former senior Trump administration HHS official who was present for portions of the dispute.

  • During the Delta wave, “I imagine a lot of people would have liked to have had it in the hospitals in Florida or wherever," the former official added.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that Merck and Ridgeback partnered to develop of antiviral drug.

Go deeper

Updated 3 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Vaccines: Mix-and-matching gains momentum — Boosters overtake first doses in U.S. — Pfizer to vaccinate Brazilian cityPanel endorses J&J booster.
  2. Health: Age is still a huge coronavirus risk factor — Unvaccinated 11x more likely to die from COVID — 5x more police officers died from COVID than guns.
  3. Politics: Over 30 states limited public health powers — Pope Francis calls on companies to release vaccine patents — Melbourne, "world's most locked-down city," to lift stay-at-home orders.
  4. Education: Education secretary reveals limits to Biden’s mask push on states — LA extends deadline for school employee vaccinations — Parent sues Wisconsin school district after child tests positive.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.
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This arthritis drug cost $198 in 2008. Now it's more than $10,000

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

In 2008, a box of 30 anti-inflammatory rectal suppositories that treats arthritis, called Indocin, had a price tag of $198. As of Oct. 1, the price of that same box was 52 times higher, totaling $10,350.

Why it matters: As federal lawmakers continue to waver on drug price reforms, Indocin is another example of how nothing prevents drug companies from hiking prices at will and selling them within a broken supply chain.

Updated 17 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Celebrities are America's new politicians

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Launching gubernatorial bids, making presidential endorsements, founding schools: Celebrities are getting increasingly involved in U.S. public and political life.

Why it matters: As we've reported, politics is no longer just the purview of career politicians, as companies and their CEOs throw their weight around to affect policies. Now, movie stars, famous musicians and professional athletes also are using their influence in politics.