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Asia’s race to stock up on Covid pill could see a repeat of vaccine grab

Experts say while the pill looks promising, they worry some people will use it as an alternative to vaccines, which still offer the best protection.

IANS | New Delhi |

Countries in Asia Pacific are rushing to place orders for the latest weapon against Covid 19 — an antiviral pill that isn’t even authorized for use yet, CNN reported.

Molnupiravir — produced by US pharmaceutical company Merck — is being heralded as a potential pandemic game changer, especially for those unable to get vaccinated.

Already, at least eight countries or territories in the Asia-Pacific region have signed deals or are in talks to procure the drug, according to analytics company Airfinity, including New Zealand, Australia, and South Korea, all of which were relatively slow to start their vaccine programs, the report said.

Experts say while the pill looks promising, they worry some people will use it as an alternative to vaccines, which still offer the best protection.

And they caution that Asia’s race to stock up on the pill could see a repeat of the vaccine grab last year, when wealthier countries were accused of hoarding doses as lower-income countries missed out, the report said.

“(Molnupiravir) really does have the potential — the potential — to change the game a bit,” said Rachel Cohen, the North American executive director at non-profit Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative.

“We need to make sure that we don’t repeat history — that we don’t fall into the same patterns or repeat the same mistakes that we saw for Covid vaccines.”

According to Airfinity data, 10 countries or territories are in negotiations or have signed deals for the pill — and eight of them are in Asia-Pacific.

Some of those countries may be trying to avoid mistakes of the past when slow orders led to delayed vaccine rollouts, the report said.

“There’s a few middle-income countries in there that I think are just trying not to fall into the same trap that they were left in when high-income countries hoarded all the vaccines,” added Cohen.

It’s not clear how much each of these countries will pay for the pills.

Merck did not confirm whether those estimates were accurate, although in a statement to CNN, the company said the calculations don’t take into account research and development.

“We have not yet established a price for molnupiravir because it has not been approved for use,” the company said. “We have an advance purchase agreement with the US government and that price is specific to a substantial volume of molnupiravir and does not represent a list price for the US or any other country.”