Experimental drug from Emory could see immediate use in India COVID surge

Access to an experimental COVID-19 drug invented by Emory University researchers is being made immediately available to India as the country faces a new, catastrophic wave of infections.

The antiviral drug EIDD-2801, known now as molnupiravir, was developed by researchers at Drug Innovation Ventures at Emory and is licensed by Merck, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. Merck, which is developing molnupiravir in collaboration with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, announced Tuesday it has partnered with five makers of generic drugs in India to accelerate the production and availability of molnupiravir. The partnership allows the companies to supply the investigational drug to India following approvals or emergency authorization by local regulatory agencies.

“My hope is there is broad distribution and arrests the spread of the disease,” said George Painter, CEO of DRIVE, a not-for-profit biotechnology company wholly owned by Emory University.

The drug is an experimental antiviral similar to the remdesivir, the first treatment for COVID-19 approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But unlike remdesivir, which has to be given intravenously, molnupiravir can be swallowed as a pill. That makes the drug much easier and faster to administer on a mass scale, and it would not need to be administered in a clinical setting.

India, a nation of nearly 1.4 billion people, set a global record of new daily infections for a fifth straight day Monday. The 350,179 new cases pushed India’s total past 17 million, behind only the United States. Deaths rose by 2,812 in the past 24 hours, bringing total fatalities to 195,123, the Health Ministry said, though the number is believed to be a vast undercount.

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.

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“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.