Pfizer boosts Paxlovid manufacturing capacity as Merck's rival COVID pill hits surprise efficacy setback

Albert Bourla incoming Pfizer CEO
Pfizer's oral COVID-19 antiviral, Paxlovid, would still be effective against the emerging Omicron variant, CEO Albert Bourla, Ph.D., said. (Pfizer)

The efficacy data for Pfizer’s oral COVID-19 drug now look so appealing that the Big Pharma company is boosting manufacturing capacity even before an expected emergency use authorization from the FDA.

Pfizer now expects to make 80 million courses of COVID drug Paxlovid by the end of 2022, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, Ph.D., told CNBC during a Monday interview. The company previously said it plans to have capacity to make 50 million courses.

The revelation came after Merck reported the risk reduction in hospitalization and death from its Ridgeback Therapeutics-partnered COVID antiviral, molnupiravir, fell from 50% to 30% in the final analysis. The updated result fueled expectations of increased demand for Paxlovid, which has shown an 89% risk reduction in outpatients.

Pfizer has filed Paxlovid for an FDA emergency use authorization and has signed a contract to provide 10 million courses to the U.S. government by 2022 for $5.29 billion.

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Meanwhile, Pfizer is investing up to $1 billion to support the manufacturing and distribution of the COVID drug, including potentially signing on contract manufacturers, the company has said. It isn’t immediately clear whether the extra courses will come from Pfizer’s own facilities or external help.

The emergence of the new coronavirus variant, omicron, stoked concerns of the power of existing vaccines and therapeutics. Despite those worries, Paxlovid will likely still be effective, Bourla said.

“The good news is when it comes to our treatment, it was designed with that in mind, it was designed with the fact that most mutations are coming in the spikes,” Bourla said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus behind COVID-19 uses the spike protein on its surface to infect healthy cells. Paxlovid is a protease inhibitor that’s designed to block an enzyme that the virus needs to replicate.

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With molnupiravir’s efficacy slump and Roche’s retreat from its Atea Pharmaceuticals-partnered COVID pill program, Pfizer’s now looks to be the king in oral COVID treatment.

Before Merck’s data update and Pfizer’s capacity increase, SVB Leerink analyst Geoffrey Porges projected Paxlovid could contribute $24.2 billion to Pfizer’s top-line in 2022 alone. Also thanks to an estimated $29.7 billion from BioNTech-shared COVID vaccine Comirnaty, Pfizer’s total revenue next year could exceed $100 billion, Porges said in an investor note last week.