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Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

The United Kingdom's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency on Thursday approved a pill developed by Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics to prevent or treat COVID-19.

Why it matters: The U.K. is the first country to approve molnupiravir — one of the first antiviral drugs developed specifically for COVID-19. The authorization gives the U.K. another tool to treat symptomatic cases of the disease.

  • Medical professionals can now prescribe molnupiravir for people with a mild to moderate case of COVID-19 and at least one risk factor for developing severe illness, such as include obesity, older age, diabetes mellitus or heart disease.

What they're saying: “Today is a historic day for our country, as the UK is now the first country in the world to approve an antiviral that can be taken at home for COVID-19," Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said. "This will be a gamechanger for the most vulnerable and the immunosuppressed, who will soon be able to receive the ground-breaking treatment."

  • “The first global authorization of molnupiravir is a major achievement in Merck’s singular legacy of bringing forward breakthrough medicines and vaccines to address the world’s greatest health challenges," Merck CEO Robert Davis said in a statement.

The big picture: U.S. health regulators are still in the process of reviewing molnupiravir, though the Biden administration has already agreed to buy about $1.2 billion worth of the drug in anticipation of approval.

  • Merck last month granted the Medicines Patent Pool, a United Nations-backed nonprofit, a royalty-free license for molnupiravir, meaning generic-drug companies in 105 low- and middle-income countries will be allowed to produce the experimental drug after it gains regulatory approval.
  • Such a drug would be a key tool to combat the pandemic since not all people will agree to get vaccinated and because it will take potentially years to vaccinate people in certain countries around the world.
  • It is one of several antiviral medications currently under development or testing.

Go deeper: Merck to share antiviral COVID pill formula with developing countries

Go deeper

Updated Nov 26, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Vaccines: U.S. to mandate vaccines for anyone who crosses borders starting in January — Shots lagged data by months — The next big bottleneck in the global vaccination effort.
  2. Health: The Thanksgiving bouncers — Axios-Ipsos poll: Thanksgiving roulette — Experts criticize CDC's language on vaccine boosters — America's Thanksgiving gamble.
  3. Politics: Biden administration asks appeals court to reinstate vaccine mandate — Michigan recommends face masks for all residents amid surge.
  4. Education: A COVID strategy backfires at schools — Schools across the U.S. offer vaccine drivesBenefits of in-person school outweigh risks, study finds.
  5. World: EU drug regulator recommends Pfizer COVID vaccine for kids — Italy announces new COVID restrictions for unvaccinated people — European health agency urges expanding booster shot access.
  6. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.
Nov 26, 2021 - Health

Fauci: U.S. "rushing" to get scientific data about new COVID variant

Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

U.S. public health officials were set to speak Friday with their South Africa counterparts as they sought scientific details about a new COVID-19 variant already prompting European and Asian countries to enact new travel restrictions.

Driving the news: Anthony Fauci, President Biden's chief medical adviser, told CNN Friday "we're rushing now to get that scientific data to try and make an informed decision" on a possible travel ban.

Updated Nov 26, 2021 - Health

Europe, Asia tighten borders in fear of new COVID variant

Passengers stand at the check-in at Frankfurt Airport. Photo: Boris Roessler/dpa via Getty Images

Countries across Europe and Asia are rushing through new travel restrictions in response to a new COVID variant identified by scientists in South Africa.

The big picture: Israel, Japan, the U.K., France, Germany, Italy and Singapore are moving to restrict entry from countries in the south of Africa, AP reports. Many are also adding quarantines for their own citizens upon return from the region.