The US pharmaceutical company Pfizer has announced that its new treatment against COVID-19 will be able to be distributed as a generic drug, therefore at very low costs, in 95 economically less advanced countries where more than half of the world’s population lives overall. A similar announcement affected the drug company Merck (Merck Sharp Dome, MSD) in late October.
The possibility of producing and distributing the two medicines without particular limitations related to patents could significantly contribute to reducing serious cases and deaths from COVID-19, but following Pfizer’s announcement, doubts have been raised about the chosen countries.
Pfizer has signed an agreement with Medicines Patent Pool (MPP), a United Nations-backed organization that promotes the adoption of commercial policies and initiatives to make particular medicines cheaper and more accessible in poor countries. Thanks to the agreement, MPP now has the ability to agree with other drug manufacturers, who will be able to manufacture and distribute a generic drug equal to Paxlovid, the trade name of the drug Pfizer intends to sell in richer countries.
In clinical trials so far, Paxlovid has shown very promising results in preventing severe forms of COVID-19 among people at risk such as the elderly or individuals with other diseases.
The best effects were obtained by administering the treatment immediately after the first symptoms appeared. They were so positive that an independent commission overseeing the trial recommended the early closure of the tests, so Pfizer could submit a request to drug regulators as soon as possible to approve the new medicine. The company is now awaiting the necessary authorizations to distribute its drug.
Paxlovid is an antiviral that interferes with the mechanisms used by the coronavirus to replicate within the cells of infected people. The treatment consists of taking 30 tablets over five days between Paxlovid and ritonavir, another antiviral drug developed long ago against HIV. Taking this second medicine allows Paxlovid to stay active longer in the body, leading to better results.
The new drug is seen as an important opportunity, especially for countries where the vaccine rate is still low and where it is not always possible to carry out more expensive health treatments to keep COVID-19 under control. Paxlovid can be taken at home without the need for hospitalization and constant medical assistance. However, the cycle of 30 pills must be started as soon as you have the first symptoms of the disease, which is not always diagnosed promptly, especially in poor countries where there is little access to tests to detect any coronavirus positivity of patients.
The agreement is expected to make larger quantities of the drug available more quickly, and there will not be many stocks of the drug immediately after authorization. Pfizer expects to be able to produce just under 200,000 treatments by the end of the year, while by 2022 it should be able to produce pills for 50 million treatments. These will be on sale in both rich and poor countries and at a lower price. The generic version will be even cheaper, but there are doubts about the countries chosen for its distribution.
For example, Brazil is missing from the list of 95 poor countries, one of the countries with the highest number of deaths from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, and other states that have had serious difficulties in the last year and a half such as Libya, Iraq. and Cuba.
Despite efforts made with international initiatives such as the COVAX program and donations from some governments, the poorest countries continue to have very few doses of coronavirus vaccines. Pfizer has distributed fewer than 170 million doses in developing countries where approximately 4 billion people live. Most of the 2 billion doses produced and sold so far have gone to richer countries, which in many cases have recently started administering a booster dose.
About twenty pharmaceutical companies have already contacted MPP to obtain permits for the production of the new drug. Production could start in several countries as early as the first months of 2022, but authorizations from the control authorities will first be required. Aspen Pharmacare, a South African pharmaceutical company, is confident that it can sell each treatment to Africa for the equivalent of approximately $ 10. In the West, the drug will have a much higher price depending on the agreements in the individual countries, for now Pfizer has not communicated forecasts.