Make COVID-19 pill more affordable, available, WHO tells Pfizer

The Director-General of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has urged Pfizer to make its COVID-19 treatment more widely available in poorer countries.

Speaking during a news briefing on Tuesday, the global health agency chief said that the pharmaceutical company’s deal allowing generic producers to make the drug was insufficient, noting that Pfizer’s treatment was still too expensive.

The WHO head, as reported by AP noted that most countries in Latin America had no access to Pfizer’s drug, Paxlovid, which has been shown to cut the risk of COVID-19 hospitalisation or death by up to 90 per cent.

“We remain concerned that low- and middle-income countries remain unable to access antivirals,” Tedros said.

The WHO DG noted that the unequal distribution of COVID-19 drugs could eventually reflect the unfair distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, noting that while countries such as Britain have vaccinated more than 70 per cent of their populations, fewer than 16 per cent of people in poor countries have received a single dose.

It could be recalled that Pfizer signed an agreement in November with the UN-backed Medicines Patent Pool to allow other drugmakers to make generic copies of its pill, for use in 95 countries. However, some large countries that suffered devastating COVID-19 outbreaks, like Brazil, were not included.

The WHO chief noted that the Pfizer deal does not go far enough and called on the company to lift its geographic restrictions on where the generic version of Paxlovid might be used, as well as to make the pill less costly for developing countries.

The US paid about $500 for each course of Pfizer’s treatment, which consists of three pills taken twice a day for five days. Its price in developing countries has not yet been confirmed.

WHO’s chief scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan said most of the world’s supply of Pfizer’s drug had already been booked by rich countries, similar to how they hoarded the vast majority of last year’s COVID-19 vaccines.

She applauded Pfizer’s agreement to let other drugmakers produce its drug but noted that manufacturing would not start until next year. 

Swaminathan also appealed to Pfizer to drop its requirement for some developing countries to assume product liability in case there are any problems once it’s rolled out.

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