Britain secures COVID-19 antivirals from Merck and Pfizer

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FILE PHOTO: A handout photo of an experimental COVID-19 treatment pill, called molnupiravir and being developed by Merck & Co Inc and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics LP

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain said on Wednesday it had secured deals for two COVID-19 antivirals, one developed by Merck and the other by Pfizer, which it said could be used to treat patients by the end of the year if regulatory approval is granted.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has removed almost all COVID-19 restrictions and is relying on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments to try and withstand winter pressures on hospitals given high case numbers of more than 40,000 new infections a day.

"We may soon have a new defence in our arsenal with two new antiviral drugs that we have secured," health minister Sajid Javid said in a statement.

Britain said it had secured 480,000 courses of Merck's molnupiravir, an antiviral pill which can be used in non-hospitalised patients.

The drug cut the rate of hospitalization and death by 50% in mild-to-moderately ill patients who had at least one risk factor for the disease, according to trial data released earlier this month.

If approved, molnupiravir, which Merck is developing with partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, could become the first oral antiviral medication for COVID-19.

Pfizer is also racing to develop an easy-to-administer antiviral pill for COVID-19, and last month began a large study of its investigational oral antiviral drug for the prevention of COVID-19 in people exposed to the virus.

In the trial, PF-07321332, designed to block the activity of a key enzyme needed for the coronavirus to multiply, will be administered along with a low dose of ritonavir, an older medication widely used in combination treatments for HIV infection.

Britain said it had secured 250,000 courses of the PF-07321332/ritonavir antiviral.

No price was disclosed for either order. Both Merck's and Pfizer's antivirals would need approval by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) before being used, the government said.

A national study will also be set up to gather more data on the effectiveness of the antivirals, it added.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout, editing by Estelle Shirbon)

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