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Pfizer says it will share the rights to its COVID-19 pill

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're coming up on a year since the first COVID 19 vaccine was authorized in the U.S., and there's still a gap in vaccine access between rich and poor countries. Now Pfizer says it will share rights to its antiviral COVID-19 pill by way of a broad licensing agreement. NPR pharmaceuticals correspondents Sydney Lupkin is here to talk about that.

Welcome back, Sydney.

SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: Describe to us what you know about the COVID-19 pill.

LUPKIN: So Pfizer's pill is called Paxlovid. It's an oral antiviral drug, which is a big deal because it can be taken outside of the hospital. You might remember remdesivir, the first antiviral drug for COVID-19 that got a lot of buzz back in the early days of the pandemic. Well, it had to be administered in the hospital via IV infusion, which is cumbersome, to say the least, and it didn't work particularly well.

The Pfizer drug, taken for five days, would ideally keep people out of the hospital because it can be taken at home when they first get sick. Pfizer says its studies show the pill can reduce the risk of hospitalization or death by 89%. And just today, Pfizer filed its application asking the Food and Drug Administration to authorize the drug for emergency use. So it could become an option fairly soon.

CORNISH: It could be an option in the U.S. fairly soon. What about countries outside the U.S.?

LUPKIN: So it hasn't been authorized outside the U.S. yet, but that's definitely where this drug could have a lot of positive impact. Countries that don't have high vaccination rates could really benefit from a drug that lessens disease severity from the beginning. Here's James Love from Knowledge Ecology International, a global public interest advocacy group.

JAMES LOVE: Then the odds of you going into hospital are really, really low, and dying are almost non-existent. So that would be, in my mind, a real game-changer. And it's particularly important for places that haven't had access to vaccines.

CORNISH: Not to get into the weeds here, but how would this sort of licensing and the rights work for this pill?

LUPKIN: Well, the company signed an agreement to allow generic drug makers to manufacture its COVID-19 pill in certain countries. It's a voluntary license agreement with the Medicines Patent Pool, or MPP, which is a United Nations-backed group. NPP can then grant some licenses to qualified generic manufacturers in 95 mostly low and middle-income countries. Pfizer won't get royalties on sales as long as the World Health Organization considers COVID-19 a public health emergency. It's really very similar to what another company, Merck, did a few weeks ago regarding its COVID-19 pill.

CORNISH: Why share patent rights on the pill, but not the vaccine, which is not only authorized in the U.S., but fully approved?

LUPKIN: Well, one argument is that it's easier to make a pill than to make a vaccine. Remember, Pfizer's vaccine is one of the new mRNA vaccines. MRNA vaccines have had never been produced on a large scale until COVID-19 hit. That's one of the reasons there were production hiccups early on. So some have argued that even if Pfizer licensed the vaccine patents, it would be too difficult for third parties to make. There has been some dispute about that. But it's also fair to say that a lot more companies are already set up to make pills.

CORNISH: But is there any criticism about this move?

LUPKIN: Yes, mainly that it excludes certain countries that are upper-middle income like Brazil. Pfizer still wants to make money on this pill where it can. And if Pfizer prices these pills similarly to the way Merck did, they could be pretty expensive. The United States spent more than $700 per five-day course of the Merck antiviral pill. For comparison, each dose of a vaccine is around $20. Pfizer said it will do tiered pricing, so the more wealthy a country is, the more it will pay for Paxlovid. But that's also what Pfizer did with vaccines, and we still have a lot of vaccine access issues, so we'll have to see how that plays out.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Sydney Lupkin.

Thanks for your reporting.

LUPKIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.