- Covid-19 has quietly become the gift that keeps on giving to big pharma.
- For less wealthy nations, competition isn’t even a possibility.
- There is an uncomfortable assumption those in the global north have tacitly begun to accept.
Covid-19 has quietly become big pharma’s gift that keeps on giving as reported by The Guardian.
The past two years have seen it reap huge profits from Covid vaccines, while simultaneously opposing wider sharing of the technology required to make them.
And now there’s a new money-spinner on the rise: Covid antiviral treatment pills.
Once again, we’re poised to fall into the same inequality traps we’re caught in with the global vaccine rollout.
Both Pfizer and Merck have new antiviral pills rapidly arriving on the market – Paxlovid and Molnupiravir respectively.
Pfizer alone, freshly cemented as the global Covid-19 vaccine kingpin, expects to make as much as $22bn from its new pill this year, on top of $37bn it made in 2021 from the vaccine.
Pfizer’s Paxlovid currently costs about $530 for a five-day course of treatment.
Merck’s molnupiravir, now approved for use in the UK, costs about $700.
Reportedly, the cost of production for molnupiravir stands at about $17.74.
Experts across the board are predicting demand for antiviral drugs will rapidly outpace supply.
A World Health Organization report produced in January warned of a “high risk of shortages” of Paxlovid for low- and lower-middle-income countries until generic versions became more widely available, which isn’t likely to be until the second half of 2022 at the earliest.
Separate analysis from the data and analytics firm Airfinity suggests that could be as late as early 2023.
Pfizer and Merck have chosen to designate a select few generic manufacturers able to produce cheaper versions of their drugs, through the Medicines Patent Pool (MPP).
But even with these deals in place, they remain firmly in control, and access to generic versions are within reach of only half the world’s population.
Several countries including Argentina, Brazil, Thailand, Russia, Colombia, Peru, Turkey and Mexico have again been excluded from such licences and are left to try to cut deals for the most expensive products.
With so many priced out of the market, global supply will again be prioritised to rich countries, while the companies refuse to make affordable generic antivirals available to everyone wherever they are needed.
This is a grim mirror of the dramatically uneven vaccine supply earlier in the pandemic when rich nations bought up many more doses than they could use.
The US, where almost two-thirds (65%) of the population is already fully vaccinated, has reportedly put up more than $10bn for Pfizer’s Paxlovid – more than twice the entire GDP of Sierra Leone, where just 9% of people have the same protections.
For less wealthy nations, competition isn’t even a possibility.
Meanwhile, Merck continues its “evergreening” patent strategy to extend its monopoly on molnupiravir beyond the standard 20-year protection.
It has already received emergency approval in the US and Japan and has been given the green light in the UK.
Even in nations within the MPP, where the pills are allowed to be made by select manufacturers, a low cost is not guaranteed.
Dr Reddy’s Laboratories in India has made a generic version of Merck’s pill that costs $18 for a course of treatment.
However, these costs won’t necessarily be reflected everywhere.
By restricting which manufacturers may produce a generic version, firms maintain considerable control over the final price.
In the past, Gilead’s treatment for hepatitis C, sofosbuvir, only dropped in price consistently when the number of manufacturers was increased without these limits.
Artificial supply crisis
There is an uncomfortable assumption those in the global north have tacitly begun to accept.
When the demand is higher than supply, there is a pecking order: rich nations first, buying up more than they realistically need, while the poorest are forced to scramble to outbid each other over what is left, dramatically overpay, or just wait until they’re affordable and watch death tolls rise.
But this supply crisis is entirely artificial.
We could produce more – Pfizer and Merck’s drugs are not complex, and could be easily manufactured in a wide range of developing countries if they had access to the know-how and could avoid the threat of legal action.
We’re doubling down on a two-tier world when it comes to Covid-19 – rich, highly vaccinated nations with easy access to both preventive measures and treatments, and poorer nations trying to get by without either.
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Source: The Guardian