Will COVID-19 treatment keep a lid on winter infections?


Merck & Co Inc (NYSE:MRK) and AstraZeneca PLC (LSE:AZN) are pressing the accelerator on their COVID-19 treatment candidates, which experts say may help to keep a lid on infections this winter.

In the week to 3 October, infections were up by only 1% in the UK, with low levels of hospitalisations thanks to the protection offered by vaccines.

READ: AstraZeneca antibody treatment halves COVID-19 deaths in new trial

Further boosting of the vaccine protection for the older population and single doses in school children is likely to help with infections, according to analysts at JP Morgan, though the cold weather could contribute to a rise in cases – but not so much in hospitalisations.

The investment bank reckons that Merck’s pill molnupiravir, which halved hospitalisations in unvaccinated patients, will play a big part in avoiding further lockdowns in the coming months.

The candidate would be much easier to use than its competitors, produced by Regeneron, Eli Lilly and GlaxoSmithKline PLC (LSE:GSK), which have to be administered via injection.

Merck’s pill could be taken home by patients that have tested positive for COVID-19 and are at risk of developing severe symptoms, relieving pressure on hospitals.

The pharma giant plans to double manufacturing capacity after receiving huge demand from all over the world, with plans to reach 20mln courses of treatment or 800mln tablets.

It has secured supply deals with Singapore, New Zealand, Australia and South Korea over the past week alone and is in talks with further governments.

The US agreed in June to buy 1.7mln treatment courses for US$1.2bn in total, or US$700 per course.

However, an independent report commissioned by the World Health Organisation noted that the stockpiling by richer countries could harm supply to poorer areas, as it happened with Covax’ efforts to distribute coronavirus vaccines.

Consulting firm Dalberg Advisors said that the US buying doses in advance is a further risk to inequality of access across the world, Fortune reported.

“We are doing these special purchase agreements as a sort of initial way to get therapy to people as quickly as possible in certain countries and there’s a large number of them that we’re working through,” Nicholas Kartsonis, Merck’s senior vice-president of clinical research, told the Financial Times.

“But I don’t want to underestimate the second tier of this, which is trying to get to as many people around the world as we can.”

Meanwhile, AstraZeneca also posted glowing final-stage trial results for its AZD7442 candidate, which halved the risk of death or catching severe COVID-19 in a phase III trial of people with mild symptoms.

It has already submitted paperwork for emergency use authorisation in the US, however this medicine would also be injected, meaning Merck’s could remain the preferred option.

Shares in AstraZeneca dipped 1% to 8,907p on Tuesday afternoon, while Merck was flat at US$79.59 at open.


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