BusinessDay

Africa in race to buy Pfizer’s COVID-19 pills

The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention is seeking to work with Pfizer to supply its COVID-19 oral antiviral, treatment, Paxlovid, to the continent.

John Nkengasong, Africa CDC director said the need for coronavirus treatment comes in the light of very low vaccination rates and the potential of mutations leading to a more infectious variant than omicron, driving overwhelming hospitalisation.

“The only way to relieve that is if we have a drug like the Paxlovid, where people can take that drug and stay home and get relieved. That way, the burden on the health system will be limited. We are in really close discussions with Pfizer to see what can be done to make the drugs available on the continent,” Nkengasong said during a media briefing.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, last month, issued an emergency use authorization (EUA) for Paxlovid for the treatment of mild to moderate COVID-19 cases in adults and children aged 12 and above, and who are at high risk for falling into severity.

In a finding Pfizer released last November, Paxlovid was found to reduce the risk of hospitalisation or death by 89 percent compared to placebo in non-hospitalised high-risk adults with COVID-19.

The 28-days study recorded no deaths in patients who received the treatment as compared to 10 deaths in patients who received placebo.

The oral antiviral treatment is specifically designed for coronavirus and could be prescribed more broadly as an at-home treatment to help reduce illness severity, hospitalisations, and deaths.

It could also reduce the probability of infection following exposure, among adults.

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It has demonstrated potent antiviral in vitro activity against circulating variants of concern, as well as other known coronaviruses, suggesting its potential as a therapeutic for multiple types of coronavirus infections, Pfizer said.

Fitting it into the context of poor vaccine supply challenging Africa, some analysts belief that the treatment could be relatively cheap to manufacture and help countries that have suffered inadequate vaccine coverage.

Apart from Pfizer, another antiviral treatment developed by Merck, a US pharmaceutical company, can also halve the risk of hospitalisation in people with mild or moderate forms of COVID-19.

However, some analysts expect that researchers have to show that the drugs work against variants.

Merck has done laboratory studies indicating that molnupiravir is effective against Delta and other variants, including the Beta variant, which was first identified in South Africa.

As of January 13, a total of 10.1 million cases had been reported on the continent, with 223, 000 deaths, according to the Africa CDC.

A total of 46 countries are experiencing a fourth wave as 61 percent experience a severe wave.

While the ACDC move raises hope, there are concerns that Africa may be left behind just like with vaccine inequity as wealthy countries are already placing large orders for the drugs. There are fears that the stockpiles could soak up supplies and limit access in other parts of the world.

The situation is all too familiar, says John Amuasi, leader of the Global Health and Infectious Diseases Research Group at the Kumasi Centre for Collaborative Research in Tropical Medicine in Ghana. “Look at what’s happened with the vaccines.”

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