WHO aims to secure antiviral drugs cheaply to help poorer nations

Move is to ensure poorer countries get fair access to treatments and vaccines

BRUSSELS : A programme led by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to ensure poorer countries get fair access to Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments aims to secure antiviral drugs for patients with mild symptoms for as little as US$10 (S$13.50) per course, according to a draft document seen by Reuters.

Merck's experimental pill molnupiravir is likely to be one of the drugs. Other drugs to treat mild patients are being developed.

The document, which outlines the goals of the Access to Covid-19 Tools Accelerator (Act-A) until next September, says the programme wants to deliver about one billion tests to poorer nations and procure drugs to treat up to 120 million patients globally, out of about 200 million new cases it estimates in the next 12 months.

The plans highlight how the WHO wants to shore up supplies of drugs and tests at a relatively low price after losing the vaccine race to wealthy nations, which scooped up a huge share of the supplies, leaving the poorest countries with few shots.

A spokesman for the Act-A said the document, dated Oct 13, was still a draft under consultation, and declined to comment on its content before it is finalised.

The document will also be sent to global leaders ahead of a Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Rome at the end of this month.

The Act-A seeks additional funding of US$22.8 billion from the G-20 and other donors until next September.

This will be needed to buy vaccines, drugs and tests and to distribute them to poorer nations to narrow the huge gaps in supply between wealthy and less-advanced countries.

Donors have so far pledged US$18.5 billion to the programme.

Although it does not explicitly cite molnupiravir, the Act-A document expects to pay US$10 dollar per course for "novel oral antivirals for mild/moderate patients".

Other pills to treat mild patients are being developed, but molnupiravir is the only one that has so far showed positive results in late-stage trials.

The Act-A is in talks with Merck and generic drug producers to buy the drug.

The price is very low compared with US$700 per course that the United States has agreed to pay for 1.7 million courses of the treatment.

But a study carried out by Harvard University estimated that molnupiravir could cost about US$20 if produced by generic drugmakers, with the price potentially going down to US$7.70 under optimised production.

The Act-A document says its target is to reach a deal by the end of next month to secure the supply of an "oral outpatient drug", which it hopes will be available from the first quarter of next year. - REUTERS