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Pfizer inks $5.3 billion deal with US for COVID-19 oral antiviral drug

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Paxlovid, a Pfizer's COVID-19 pill, is seen manufactured in Ascoli, Italy, in this undated handout photo. (File Photo by Reuters)

American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has signed a US$5.29 billion deal with the US government to deliver 10 million courses of its experimental COVID-19 antiviral drug.

If approved by regulators, it will be the world’s hardest-hit country’s largest purchase agreement yet for an oral coronavirus treatment, branded as Paxlovid.

The deal is roughly twice the size of the contract the US government has with Merck, another American multinational pharmaceutical company, although the price for the Pfizer pill is lower at roughly US$530 per course compared with about US$700 for Merck's.

Pfizer has asked the Food and Drug Administration, a federal agency of the US Department of Health, to authorize emergency use of the experimental pill, which is believed to cut the rate of hospitalizations and deaths among infected people by 89 percent.

The company has said it would begin deliveries of the drug as soon as this year if it is authorized by the US Food and Drug Administration.

“This agreement would help ensure millions of doses of this drug would be available to the American people if it is authorized," Xavier Becerra, secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, was quoted as saying.

While vaccinations against COVID-19 are a priority, having pills that can keep people out of the hospital "could be a lifesaver", Becerra asserted.

US is the worst-affected country by the coronavirus, where total cases have surged past 47.4 million besides over 767 thousand fatalities. The reluctance to get vaccinated or immunized is driving the new wave of the pandemic in the country.

Over 70 thousand Americans have been infected daily for almost three weeks now, and over 1,000 people are dying every day, which underlines the struggle with vaccine hesitancy in the country.

According to Johns Hopkins University, the number of infections are creeping to 80 thousand a day, pointing to a possible winter coronavirus spike.  

Pfizer has said it plans to manufacture around 180,000 treatment courses by the end of next month and at least 50 million courses by the end of 2022.

The demand for doses of Pfizer and Merck oral drugs is surging in many countries as new variants of the virus fuel fresh concerns about the length of the pandemic.

The US government has so far secured 3.1 million courses of Merck's COVID-19 pill for US$2.2 billion, with the right to buy 2 million more courses in near future.

US President Joe Biden said in a statement that his administration is taking steps to ensure that the treatments “will be easily accessible and free.”

“This treatment could prove to be another critical tool in our arsenal that will accelerate our path out of the pandemic,” he said.

It comes weeks after the UK medicines regulator approved a similar treatment from Merck. The country has already ordered 250,000 courses of the new Pfizer treatment, which has not yet been approved, along with another 480,000 courses of Merck’s molnupiravir pill.

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