Lifting of patents. At Big Pharma, Merck falls out of line

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On the Covid-19 front, is the patent dike giving way? A breach is now open: Wednesday evening, the American pharmaceutical company Merck announced a partnership with the Medicines Patent Pool (MPP), an organization supported by the United Nations whose goal is to guarantee universal access to drugs and vaccines. According to the terms of this license agreement which, once is not customary, is public and transparent, molnupiravir, this treatment still in the phase of clinical trials and evaluation by the regulatory authorities at this stage, should be able to be produced by generic manufacturers around the world and distributed at an “off-market” price in the 105 poorest countries in the world.

The affair had not started well for Merck, and this undoubtedly explains the turnaround of these last days… At the end of September, in a press release, the multinational, designated outside the United States by the acronym MSD – in order to distinguish from a namesake implanted in Germany – had boasted, through a press release, the promising results of its treatment for Covid-19 patients: administered very easily orally, the antiviral pill would reduce, according to this clinical trial driven by Merck, half the number of severe forms leading to hospitalization. Biden’s United States scooped up the first stocks at the prohibitive price of $ 712 (612 euros) processing. France has, in recent days, made it known that it had also ordered 50,000 doses of molnupiravir for an amount on which the Minister of Health, Olivier Véran, refused to expand.

WHO welcomes “a positive step”

However, as soon as the encouraging results were published by Merck, American researchers recalled that the treatment was developed in the laboratories of two American universities, including the prestigious UNC in Chapel Hill (North Carolina) – one of the most large public research institutions in the United States -, with grants from the Public Health Agency (NIH). According to the calculations of several experts from Harvard (United States) and King’s College Hospital in London (United Kingdom), its total cost of production, including profits, taxes and duties, is actually around $ 20. (17.25 euros). After the agreement forged with the MPP, Unitaid, the international agency responsible for purchasing medicines to guarantee universal access, is delighted with the simplicity of manufacturing the treatment, which, with global competition between the producers of generics, should guarantee a much lower price than the more than 600 euros paid by the Biden administration. In this case, the price of a five-day treatment with molnupiravir could even be further halved – compared to the initial estimate – to 10 dollars (8.60 euros).

While urging Merck to provide full scientific data from clinical trials, the World Health Organization (WHO) welcomes this first breakthrough in the face of Big Pharma’s exclusive stranglehold on drugs and vaccines since the beginning of the pandemic. In a statement, the UN institution welcomes “a positive step towards the creation of wider access to treatments as quickly as possible by allowing holders of generic licenses to create more affordable versions of the drug”. According to the WHO, “this will reduce the time between the drug’s approval and its availability in the 105 low- and middle-income countries covered by the license.” As access to this potentially effective drug at a non-exorbitant price is however not guaranteed in countries like Brazil, Russia or Turkey, the WHO recommends however to include “other key countries in the field application of the agreement in the near future ”.

On the side of the activists engaged in the battle for the lifting of patents since the start of the pandemic, we do not hide our joy. Director of the NGO Knowledge Ecology International (KEI), a leading movement in the United States on intellectual property issues, James Love hails the “best deal a company has ever made in terms of user licensing since start of the Covid-19 pandemic ”. Animator of the global People Vaccine coalition, Mohga Kamal-Yanni insists on the gap with other major laboratories: “Despite a distribution which remains scandalously inequitable, the poorest countries should not remain at the end of the line. for molnupiravir. ”

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