An initiative has been launched to ensure that low-income countries in Africa and South-East Asia have access to antiviral drugs that can save the lives of people infected with Covid-19.
The Covid Treatment Quick Start Consortium, which will help distribute the drugs in 10 poorer nations, is supported by organisations including a foundation set up by Bill Clinton, the former US president.
Organisers hope the consortium will ensure that governments in the countries involved will be able to immediately give antiviral drugs to patients most at risk if they develop Covid-19.
As well as ensuring drugs are available, the initiative will promote testing to ensure that people are diagnosed in a timely manner before symptoms worsen.
Efforts will be focused on nine countries in sub-Saharan Africa — Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe — and Laos in South-East Asia.
The initiative has been kick-started with a donation by the US pharmaceutical company Pfizer of 100,000 doses of Paxlovid, an antiviral drug that prevents the coronavirus from multiplying.
Later, cheaper generic forms of the drug will be made available to the countries.
Sean Regan, director of Covid treatment access for the Clinton Health Access Initiative, part of the Clinton Foundation, said at the programme’s online launch that the Pfizer drugs would “act as a bridge to low-cost generic drugs”.
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“The work isn’t meant to be contained within the 10 countries outlined. We want to go further,” he said.
Caroline Roan, senior vice president of Pfizer for global health and social impact, and the company’s chief sustainability officer, said equitable access to Covid-19 therapeutics depended on patients being tested and receiving treatment in a timely way.
“We believe our partners in the consortium bring the right set of skills to ensure we can scale test-and-treat programmes for high-risk populations in low and middle-income countries,” she said.
“Our donation can help to jump-start this effort and provide a critical tool that will support greater access in the 10 demonstration countries and, hopefully, help catalyse access to all therapeutics more broadly.”
She said the new initiative aimed to improve access to all oral therapeutics, including generic medicines that will become available through a voluntary licensing initiative called the Medicines Patent Pool, which has agreements with Pfizer and another pharmaceutical company, Merck.
“For Pfizer’s oral treatment, MPP has agreements with 38 manufacturers for the production and supply of generic versions,” Ms Roan said.
Paxlovid is designed to be given within five days of symptoms starting and is recommended for people at high risk of developing severe illness.
In some of the countries involved, significant numbers of people are infected with HIV, the virus that causes Aids, and they are among the people likely to be prioritised for antiviral treatment if they get Covid-19.
Since the new coronavirus emerged in Wuhan in China in late 2019, there have been more than 603 million confirmed cases of Covid-19, according to the World Health Organisation, and almost 6.5 million deaths.
Numerous treatments against Covid-19 have been approved. As well as antiviral pills such as Paxlovid, which prevent the virus from multiplying, patients have been administered monoclonal antibodies, which are lab-produced antibodies that act in addition to the body’s own immune response.
Many of the latest antiviral drugs have been available in wealthy nations since late last year, but the consortium said that access in poorer nations has been much more limited.
As well as treatments, more than 12.5 billion vaccine doses have been administered worldwide, However, according to OurWorldinData, a University of Oxford website, only 21 per cent of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose, indicating that inequity in the supply of vaccines, as well as treatments, has been an issue.
Gary Edson, the president of Covid Collaborative, an assembly of organisations and experts working on Covid-19, said the first patients were likely to be administered the antiviral drugs through the programme later this month.
He added that the efforts of the Quick Start Consortium would mirror public-private partnerships that had ensured better access to HIV drugs in low-income nations.
“Quick Start is first and foremost a public-private partnership,” he said.
“We’ll be working with ministries of health to build public capability … Quick Start will ensure more just and more equitable access to these life-saving therapies.”
Rosalind McKenna, special adviser to the Open Society Foundations, a grant-awarding philanthropic organisation headed by the investor George Soros, said that the Covid-19 pandemic “exposed the massive inequalities in access to vaccination and health treatment”.
She added that the programme would improve the ability of countries to organise treatments themselves, multiplying the benefits.
“Certainly this access to treatment for vulnerable populations is the most humane and human part of this [initiative], but the way that the programme will shape the intervention of primary healthcare systems in order that these interventions can be scaled up is a huge reason for our interest,” she said.
Other organisations involved in the Covid Treatment Quick Start Consortium include Duke University in the US, Americares, a non-profit organisation that helps people affected by poverty or disaster, and the Conrad N Hilton Foundation.
“It’s critical we continue to respond to this health emergency with equity,” said Christine Squires, president and chief executive of Americares.
“High rates of chronic disease in many of these countries make patients more at risk of severe disease from Covid-19.”