Scientists are calling Molnupiravir a game changer in the fight against Covid-19.
The drug is a treatment for the disease that can be taken as a pill, and reduces the risk of hospital admission or death by 50 per cent in adults, according to a large clinical trial conducted by the company and partners Ridgeback.
The implications for the fight against a disease that has killed at least five million people since it emerged in early 2020 could be transformative, if early trial data is accurate.
Data will be submitted by Merck to the US Food and Drug Administration for review, before it can be given emergency authorisation in the US, but Antony Fauci at the National Institutes of Health’s infectious diseases branch, said the trial’s results are encouraging and that the pill could be a useful accompaniment to mass inoculation.
"Among the deaths in the study, there were eight deaths among the placebo group and no deaths among those who took the medication,” Dr Fauci said. “That’s very impressive."
Several East Asian countries, as well as Australia, are now moving quickly to secure supply of the treatment.
European medicine regulators are still reviewing the drug.
South Korea has secured 20,000 courses of the antiviral pill, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said on Wednesday.
Merck also announced on Wednesday a supply and purchase agreement with Singapore, while Thailand, Taiwan and Malaysia said they are in talks to buy it.
The course of treatment involves patients taking four pills twice a day for five days.
"We have secured a budget enough for treatment of around 40,000 people and have signed a pre-purchase deal for 20,000 courses," Mr Kim told a Covid-19 response meeting on Wednesday.
South Korea is also looking to buy other antiviral drugs, he said.
Merck said it plans a tiered pricing approach based on country income criteria. The US government has a contract to buy 1.7 million courses at a cost of $700 per course.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said it was also in talks with Pfizer and Swiss drugmaker Roche Holding AG, who are also racing to develop an easy-to-administer antiviral pill for Covid-19.
South Korean government allocated 36.2 billion won ($30.31 million) in budget for oral antiviral pills to cure Covid-19.
Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan and Malaysia are in talks to buy it. The Philippines hopes its trial of the pill will allow it access.