Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today
Merck shares its Covid pill.,
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Fully vaccinated Australians will be allowed to travel abroad starting in November.
Brazilian lawmakers are seeking to bring criminal charges against President Jair Bolsonaro for his pandemic response.
Louisiana’s governor lifted the state’s indoor mask mandate except in schools.
Merck agrees to share its Covid pill
Merck announced today that it would license its promising Covid-19 pill, allowing the drug to be manufactured and sold cheaply in 105 developing nations, mostly in Africa and Asia. The move could help millions in poorer countries have access to a potentially lifesaving treatment.
This month, the company reported that its drug, called molnupiravir, halved the rate of hospitalizations and deaths in high-risk Covid patients in a large clinical trial. After the announcement, wealthy countries, including the U.S., negotiated deals to buy large portions of the planned supply, raising concerns that poor countries would be shut out, as they have been with vaccines.
Our colleague Stephanie Nolen, who covers global health, said Merck’s decision to license the drug free made for good public relations, and had its roots in the criticism the company faced during the fight for lifesaving H.I.V. drugs for Africa in the early 2000s.
Back then, Western pharmaceutical companies that produced H.I.V. medications were attacked by governments and activists for not licensing their treatments to drug makers in the developing world who said they could cheaply manufacture generic versions. Eventually, a compromise was reached: Pharmaceutical companies would hold patents and produce for wealthy nations, including the U.S. and European countries, while companies in India and other emerging economies manufactured generic versions.
“It took pharmaceutical companies a long time to do what I would say is the right thing back then,” Stephanie said. “But they learned from that. Now, it’s core to the culture of some pharmaceutical companies to understand that you have to do access right from the beginning with a new drug.”
Merck is partnering with the Medicines Patent Pool, a United-Nations backed organization that helps to make medical treatment globally accessible, which will then sublicense the formulation of the pill to companies in the developing world. Merck will supply wealthy nations, like the U.S., which purchased courses of the drug for $712 each. And companies in the developing world will supply the market there. Some experts said a generic version of molnupiravir could profitably be produced for as little as $8 per course.
More than 50 companies, from all regions of the developing world, have already approached the organization about obtaining a sublicense, said the director of the Medicines Patent Pool.
The move to license the drug also stands in contrast to the fight over vaccine technology.
“Merck’s pill is a straightforward small-molecule drug,” Stephanie said. “Whereas the thing that Moderna and Pfizer are holding on to is something that no one else has managed to successfully make yet — an effective vaccine using an mRNA platform. A lot of companies are looking at mRNA technology for tuberculosis, malaria, H.I.V. and cancer vaccines. It’s a golden ticket. So the stakes in sharing that are totally different.”
Although Merck’s announcement today is positive news, Stephanie said there were some outstanding issues. The drug has not been approved for use by any regulatory agency, and Merck has not shared any clinical trial data. (The company has applied for emergency authorization from the F.D.A. and a decision could come by December.)
The deal with the Patent Pool also leaves out most middle income countries, including China and Russia — the site of a raging Covid outbreak — raising the possibility that citizens in these nations, which often have weak health systems, will not have access to the drug.
And molnupiravir will need to be accompanied by widespread access to fast and easy testing — people can take the pill only after they know they have Covid.
“But if this drug proves safe, and if it’s approved, then it potentially dramatically changes what the pandemic looks like,” Stephanie said. “You can treat people as soon as they start to fall sick, and you can keep them out of hospital, and keep them from dying. Then we start to be able to think about living with Covid in a really different way.”
Disability for long Covid?
Thousands of Americans and possibly millions may have “long Covid,” in which they continue to experience symptoms long after an infection.
But although President Biden has said they should qualify for federal disability benefits, survivors can have a hard time getting the assistance.
The American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation estimates that three to 10 million Americans may have long Covid. But only about 16,000 applicants have even been able to provide the Social Security Administration with medical evidence supporting Covid-19 as an impairment since December 2020, according to an agency spokeswoman.
There is no widely agreed-on method of diagnosing the ailment.
Josie Cabrera Taveras tested positive in April 2020. Since then, she has been sleeping for up to 15 hours a day, stopping in grocery store aisles to catch her breath, and lapsing in and out of consciousness. She has been unable to return to her job as a nanny.
She’s tried to find medical evidence of her condition, undergoing two brain M.R.I.s, several heart ultrasounds and dozens of lung X-rays, among other procedures. All have returned normal results. Without concrete evidence, she has been turned down for disability coverage twice.
“It’s something doctors can’t explain yet, what’s happening to me,” Taveras said.
What else we’re following
The W.H.O. recorded an 18 percent increase in Covid cases in Europe over the past week. It is now the only major region worldwide where Covid cases and deaths are increasing.
New U.S. cases are down by 60 percent from the peak of the last surge, The Washington Post reports.
As other nations push to vaccinate children, Mexico is an outlier.
In recent days, Russia, Ukraine and Bulgaria have reported record numbers of deaths from the virus. In Poland, the health ministry recorded the highest number of new cases since late April.
A new study found that pregnant and breastfeeding women respond to the first dose more slowly than other women, and mount a less potent defense.
Some U.S. states have placed orders for pediatric vaccines, anticipating federal authorization.
Dr. Deborah Birx, who helped run the pandemic response for former President Donald Trump, told congressional investigators that Trump’s White House failed to take steps that could have prevented tens of thousands of deaths.
In an attempt to open schools, Vietnam began vaccinating children ages 12 to 17.
Stat News compiled a list of three things you should know about the emergence of the Delta Plus variant.
What you’re doing
We’re parents of a 3- and 5-year-old. I think we’ll come to appreciate all the time we’ve been able to spend with the children in our small apartment together, but for the most part, it’s been all-consuming. We haven’t tried recipes, taken up hobbies, caught up on anything; on the contrary, we’ve lost our personal lives. We even gave up on attempting adult conversation moons ago. The top priority is getting the kids through. When schools and kinders reopen someday, we’ll get to recover, and hopefully see that our sacrifice has given the kids endless family time they’d never have had otherwise.
— David Lazarus, Lima, Peru
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