Merck’s COVID pill treatment costs $700 per patient and is 50% effective. What could it mean for vax uptake?

A pill is seen with a Merck logo displayed on a screen in the background, October 4, 2021. This could be the first oral medication for treating COVID-19 — if approved by the FDA. Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto.

Drugmaker Merck asked the FDA today for emergency-use authorization for a COVID-19 treatment pill that it developed with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics. Early trials show that the medication, which people are supposed to take at the onset of symptoms, could cut coronavirus-related deaths and hospitalizations by half. Right now, a five-day, 40-pill treatment costs $700 per patient. 

John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus of UC Berkeley’s Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology division, says $700 is a steep price, and it’ll be interesting to see whether Medicare, Medi-Cal, Medicaid, and/or private insurance companies will cover it. 

“The vaccine company has said that they’ll work with poorer [countries] to lower the price, and they have lowered them somewhat. But for some of the poorest countries, the price that the vaccine companies have offered still exceeds their ability to pay,” he says. 

Meanwhile, AstraZeneca’s drug is in the early stages of clinical trials, and it’s meant to be used preventatively. If the FDA approves both these two drugs, would it signal to Americans that they don’t have to get vaccinated? 

“It’s so much easier and so much safer to prevent getting infected than to wait until you’re infected and take a drug that hopefully will work,” Swartzberg says. “Now, even according to Merck, the molnupiravir is only 50% effective. So who would in their right mind, really, want to take a risk of getting an infection — it could kill them — because there’s a drug that could prevent half of those people from dying?” 

Credits

Guest:

  • John Swartzberg - clinical professor emeritus of UC Berkeley’s Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology division