Brussels mulls joint EU purchase of new antiviral COVID pills

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The European Commission is actively exploring the joint purchase of the new antiviral pills that can be taken at home to treat mild and moderate COVID-19, even if some EU countries are moving forward with their own agreements.

The two pills, Pfizer’s Paxlovid and Merck’s Molnupiravir (also known as Lagevrio), have been touted as a revolutionary step in the fight against coronavirus as the highly contagious Omicron variants sends infections numbers to record highs across the world. The medicine prevents the virus from multiplying and reduces the severity of the disease.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has already issued official advice on how to use both treatments: the pills should be taken twice a day by adults with COVID-19 as soon as possible after the positive test and within five days of the start of symptoms.

Paxlovid combines two active substances that come as separate tablets.

EMA’s advice does not amount to marketing authorisation, which is the result of a lengthier rolling review. The advice, however, serves as guidance for those EU countries that decide to deploy the pills as an emergency treatment to deal with high infection and death rates.

Some EU countries, including Germany, Belgium, Italy and Greece, are in touch with the pharmaceutical companies to purchase doses. Germany has ordered 1 million doses from Pfizer, while Belgium intends to buy 10,000 doses from each company.

Meanwhile in Brussels, the European Commission is in “exploratory talks” with the developers and stands “ready to negotiate” new joint procurement contracts, although no agreement has yet been signed, a spokesperson confirmed to Euronews.

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“The decision to launch a procurement procedure is taken by participating countries, when at least four countries and the Commission agree to proceed,” the official noted.

Promising therapeutics

The common scheme for antiviral pills is expected to follow the example set by the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines: back then, the Commission signed contracts with drugmakers on behalf of the 27 member states in order to guarantee an equal and affordable distribution across the bloc.

The executive has said its negotiating power as a single market of 450 million citizens allowed the EU to obtain doses for a low, uniform price.

Despite a slow start, the vaccine scheme is now considered a success, having delivered more than one billion doses since December 2020. Nevertheless, disparate vaccine uptake between member states – particularly in some Eastern countries – has dented the final results.

The talks for antiviral pills follow a call from EU leaders during an in-person summit last December. “The implementation of the EU strategy on COVID-19 therapeutics, including joint procurement, should be taken forward,” leaders said.

The Commission had previously identified 10 promising therapeutics to treat coronavirus patients, a list that included the three antiviral pills, including Pfizer’s, Merck’s and AT-527 from Atea Pharmaceuticals and Roche.

Regulators in the United Kingdom and the United States have already authorised the Pfizer and Merck pills and patients can access the treatment in hospitals and pharmacies under prescription. The US has ordered 20 million courses of the Pfizer tablets.For the first order of 10 million courses, signed in November, the American government paid $5.29 billion.

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“We are in discussions with [over] 100 governments around the world regarding supply agreements for PAXLOVID, including the European Commission and European governments. Agreements are already in place with multiple countries,” a Pfizer spokesperson told Euronews.

“Our goal is to deliver this oral antiviral therapy as soon as possible, subject to country regulatory authorization and in line with supply agreements.”

Pfizer’s antiviral COVID-19 pill was found to reduce hospitalisation and death in high-risk patients by nearly 90 per cent, in a study carried out by the company.

The results surpass the success of Merck’s product, which is estimated to reduce serious illness or death by around 30 per cent, down from an earlier calculation of 50 per cent. Merck’s disappointing downgrade led France to cancel an initial order of 50,000 doses.

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