MERCK SELLS FEDERALLY FINANCED COVID PILL TO U.S. FOR 40 TIMES WHAT IT COSTS TO MAKE

A FIVE-DAY COURSE of molnupiravir, the new medicine being hailed as a “huge advance” in the treatment of Covid-19, costs $17.74 to produce, according to a report issued last week by drug pricing experts at the Harvard School of Public Health and King’s College Hospital in London. Merck is charging the U.S. government $712 for the same amount of medicine, or 40 times the price.

Last Friday’s announcement that the new medicine cut the risk of hospitalization among clinical trial participants with moderate or mild illness in half could have huge implications for the course of the coronavirus pandemic. Because it’s a pill — as opposed to monoclonal antibodies, a comparable antiviral treatment that is administered intravenously — molnupiravir is expected to be more widely used and, hopefully, will cut the death rate. In the first 29 days of the trial, no deaths were reported among the 385 patients who received the drug, while eight of the people who received a placebo died, according to the statement put out by Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, the two companies that are jointly launching it.

In addition to having huge implications for health, the pill could bring staggering profits to both Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics. A small Miami-based company, Ridgeback licensed the medicine from Emory University in 2020 and two months later sold the worldwide rights to the drug to Merck for an undisclosed sum. Although Ridgeback remains involved in the development of the drug, some have described the deal as “flipping.”

Like the vast majority of medicines on the market, molnupiravir — which was originally investigated as a possible treatment for Venezuelan equine encephalitis — was developed using government funds. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a division of the Department of Defense, provided more than $10 million of funding in 2013 and 2015 to Emory University, as research done by the nonprofit Knowledge Ecology International has revealed. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, also provided Emory with more than $19 million in additional grants.

 
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Yet only Merck and Ridgeback will reap the profits from the new antiviral, which according to Quartz could bring in as much as $7 billion by the end of this year. After the announcement of the encouraging clinical trial results on Friday, Merck’s stock price climbed, while stock prices of some vaccine makers sagged. Despite its initial investment, the U.S. government seems to be facing a steep markup in prices. In June, the government signed a $1.2 billion contract with Merck to supply 1.7 million courses of the medication at the $712 price. The transaction is due to take place as soon as molnupiravir receives emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.

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