Africa CDC says it will talk to Merck about COVID pill, Pfizer talks ‘advanced’

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Africa’s top public health body plans to talk to Merck about obtaining supplies of its molnupiravir treatment pill for COVID-19, although talks with Pfizer about its Paxlovid medication were more advanced, it said on Thursday.

The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had announced last week it was negotiating for supplies of Paxlovid, joining a global race for a drug seen as a potential game changer in fighting the virus.

“We don’t have a preference to talk only to Pfizer and not Merck, it’s just that Pfizer has been more forthcoming with their engagement. We plan to engage both companies equally,” said John Nkengasong, the Africa CDC director.

“The Pfizer arrangement is far advanced … In time, if we narrow this down and finalise … with Pfizer, I’m sure we’ll engage with Merck as well,” he said at a news briefing.

The Paxlovid medication was nearly 90% effective in preventing hospitalisations and deaths, and data suggested it retains its effectiveness against the Omicron variant, Pfizer has said.

Merck has said it expects molnupiravir to be effective against the highly contagious Omicron, which has driven a surge in cases across the world.

While vaccines have been governments’ main weapon against COVID, there are hopes Merck and Pfizer’s experimental pills – taken at home rather than in hospital or medical centres – could be key in reducing the chances of dying or hospitalisation for those most at risk of severe illness.

Nearly 30 generic drugs manufacturers signed an agreement to produce low-cost versions of molnupiravir, the United Nations-backed Medicines Patent Pool said on Thursday.