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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

Nov 29, 2021 - Health

WHO warns against travel bans on southern African countries

Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization regional director for Africa. Photo: Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

The World Health Organization called on countries Sunday not to impose travel bans on southern African nations amid concerns over the COVID-19 Omicron variant.

Why it matters: The U.S. and countries in Europe and the Asia-Pacific announced travel restrictions in response to Omicron, which was first detected in South Africa. It's since been identified in several European countries, Canada, Israel, Australia and Hong Kong. The WHO noted in a statement that only two southern African nations have detected the new strain.

Nov 26, 2021 - Health

U.S. to restrict air travel from 8 countries over new COVID variant concerns

A COVID-19 vaccine is administered. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The U.S. will impose new air travel restrictions in response to the Omicron variant, a new COVID-19 strain first detected in South Africa, President Biden announced Friday.

The big picture: Air travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi will be restricted starting on Monday.

Nov 27, 2021 - World

South Africa says it's being "punished" for detecting new COVID variant

South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor addresses the 76th session of the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 22 in New York City. Photo: Eduardo Munoz - Pool/Getty Images

South Africa said Saturday it's being "punished" for detecting the new Omicron coronavirus variant as more countries rush to enact travel bans and restrictions.

Driving the news: The U.S. imposed air travel restrictions from eight countries Friday in response to the Omicron variant. Countries in Europe and Asia have also implemented their own travel restrictions in response to Omicron.