Nov. 11, 2021 -- The U.S. government is investing more in experimental antiviral pills designed to help people who catch COVID-19.

The pharmaceutical company Merck announced Tuesday that the government will spend an additional $1 billion to purchase 1.4 billion courses of its pill, molnupiravir.

In June the government agreed to buy 1.7 million courses of molnupiravir for $1.2 billion. The contract gives the government the option to buy an additional 2 million courses, the company said in a news release.

The deals are conditional on the drug being granted emergency use authorization or approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Merck filed for an EAU on Oct. 11. The company says the FDA’s Antimicrobial Drugs Advisory Committee will discuss the application Nov. 30.

The capsule, made by Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, is designed to treat mild to moderate COVID-19 in adults who are at risk of having severe COVID-19 or hospitalization. "Molnupiravir, if authorized, will be among the vaccines and medicines available to fight COVID-19 as part of our collective efforts to bring this pandemic to an end," Frank Clyburn, president of Merck's human health business, said in the news release.

On Oct. 1, Merck and Ridgeback released interim data from its phase III clinical trial, which showed that molnupiravir reduced the risk of hospitalization or death by about 50%. About 7% of patients who received the drug were hospitalized within 30 days in the study, as compared with 14% of patients who took a placebo, the company said.

The government has also agreed to purchase 1.7 million courses of the treatment of the Pfizer antiviral pill with an option for 3.3 million more treatments, Reuters reported.

Pfizer says the pill, Paxlovid, cuts a person’s chance of hospitalization or death by 89% if taken within three days of the start of symptoms. Pfizer says it plans to file for an EAU soon.

Both antiviral treatments would be expensive, costing about $700 for a course of therapy, Reuters said.

Show Sources

Merck. "Merck and Ridgeback Announce U.S. Government to Purchase 1.4 Million Additional Courses of Molnupiravir, an Investigational Oral Antiviral Medicine, for the Treatment of Mild-to-Moderate COVID-19 in At Risk Adults"

Reuters. “U.S. government to buy $1 billion more worth of Merck's COVID-19 pill”

Pfizer. “PFIZER’S NOVEL COVID-19 ORAL ANTIVIRAL TREATMENT CANDIDATE REDUCED RISK OF HOSPITALIZATION OR DEATH BY 89% IN INTERIM ANALYSIS OF PHASE 2/3 EPIC-HR STUDY”

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