India’s surge in coronavirus infections, growing at the fastest pace in the world, has left families and patients pleading for oxygen outside hospitals, the relatives weeping in the street as their loved ones die while waiting for treatment.
“The scale of human suffering in India at this moment is devastating, and it is clear that more must be done to help alleviate it. These agreements, toward which we have been working as we have been studying Molnupiravir, will help to accelerate access to Molnupiravir in India and around the world,” said Kenneth C. Frazier, chairman and CEO, Merck in a press release. “We remain committed to aiding in the global response that will bring relief to the people of India and, ultimately, bring an end to the pandemic.”
The development of molnupiravir goes back eight years. Originally, researchers at Drug Innovation Ventures at Emory set out to develop antiviral medications that could battle a broad spectrum of viruses. Their main target at the time was Venezuelan equine encephalitis, a mosquito-borne illness with a high mortality rate. But over the years, the drug they developed to combat that disease, first referenced as EIDD-2801, also showed strong results in animal testing against influenza and coronaviruses. And once the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, researchers found that the drug also could stop the coronavirus from multiplying in cells.
In October, the companies started Phase II/III trials to see if it can reduce mortality and speed recovery. In April, Merck announced that it would end its trial of molnupiravir with hospitalized patients because the data showed it was unlikely to help. They are continuing the trial with non-hospitalized patients.
Painter said he envisions the drug being expanded at some point to other countries, including the United States. But for now, there is an urgent need to have this drug be widely available in India.
“This is not just India’s problem,” he said. “This is the world’s problem. We are all interconnected, and we are in this together.”
The unfolding crisis is most visceral in India’s overwhelmed graveyards and crematoriums and in heartbreaking images of gasping patients dying on their way to hospitals due to lack of oxygen.
In the central city of Bhopal, some crematoriums have increased their capacity from dozens of pyres to more than 50. Yet there are still hours-long waits.
The situation is equally grim at unbearably full hospitals, where desperate people are dying in line, sometimes on the roads outside, waiting to see doctors.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.