WHO plots multibillion-dollar campaign to buy COVID-19 antivirals for $10 per course: Reuters

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Officials with the World Health Organization are looking to raise billions to buy COVID-19 vaccines, tests and drugs through next September, Reuters reports. (Getty Images)

Almost immediately after Merck reported impressive data for its COVID-19 pill, questions about pricing and access started swirling. It turns out officials at the World Health Organization are already working through those issues with a multibillion-dollar international effort.

The agency wants to buy 28 million courses of COVID-19 antiviral pills for low- and middle-income countries at $10 per course, according to a document seen by Reuters.

The document was dated Oct. 13 and was still a draft, a WHO spokesperson told the news service, but it's expected to be shared with world leaders ahead of a summit in Rome later this month. It's part of the roadmap for the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A) program through next September.

In all, the ACT-A program aims to raise $22.8 billion to buy vaccines, tests and treatments. So far, it's collected $18.5 billion in pledges and is in talks with Merck and generics drugmakers to buy doses of molnupiravir, the COVID-19 pill that's under review at the FDA, Reuters reports.

Merck and its partner, Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, reported this month that their drug cut hospitalizations and deaths in a phase 3 trial, and they've since submitted a request to the FDA for emergency use authorization. Their pill is the farthest along among a new class of COVID-19 antivirals.

RELATED: Merck's oral COVID-19 antiviral slashes hospitalizations, prevents deaths in phase 3, sparking race to file with FDA

The ACT-A program won't focus only on molnupiravir, according to the document seen by Reuters, but officials aim to ink a supply deal for an "oral outpatient drug" by the end of next month.

If ACT-A is able to buy courses at $10, that would compare with the $700 per course the U.S. agreed to pay for molnupiravir under a June supply deal. For 1.7 million courses of the drug, the government said it would shell out about $1.2 billion. 

RELATED: With $1.2B deal for molnupiravir, U.S. bets on Merck's oral COVID-19 antiviral

Before Merck's drug showed phase 3 promise, the company struck licensing deals with eight Indian generic drugmakers to help bolster supply in low- and middle-income countries.