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LONDON – Merck has agreed to let other drugmakers produce its COVID-19 pill, a move that could help lower-income countries get better access to the treatment, The Associated Press is reporting.

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In a news release early Wednesday, the pharmaceutical company and the Medicines Patent Pool, a U.N.-backed public health organization, announced that a voluntary licensing agreement had been signed for Merck’s investigational antiviral treatment for mild to moderate cases of COVID-19 in patients with underlying conditions. The pill, called molnupiravir, was developed by Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics.

“This agreement with MPP is another important element in our multifaceted strategy to accelerate broad access to our investigational COVID-19 therapy, if approved or authorized, for patients no matter where they live, including in countries where governments face greater challenges to finance health care,” Frank Clyburn, Merck executive vice president and president of human health, said in a statement.

The announcement came just weeks after Merck and Ridgeback submitted an application to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration seeking emergency use authorization for the drug. If cleared, it would be the first pill to treat COVID-19.

>> Merck says pill to treat COVID-19 cuts risk of death, hospitalization by half

Earlier this month, the companies said early results from their Phase 3 clinical trial showed that molnupiravir reduced the risk of hospitalization or death from the illness by about half in the study’s participants, who had underlying health conditions that put them at a higher risk of developing severe COVID-19.

The study tracked 775 adults who had mild to moderate COVID-19 infections and who began treatment with molnupiravir within five days of experiencing symptoms, according to an Oct. 1 news release. Through the 29th day of treatment, about 7% of patients who received the drug were hospitalized or died due to COVID-19, compared with 14% of patients who received a placebo, the release said. No deaths were reported in people who received molnupiravir, while eight deaths were reported in patients who got placebos, the companies said.

The study has not yet been peer-reviewed.

In a statement Wednesday, MPP Executive Director Charles Gore said interim results of the study are “compelling” and called the pill “a potentially important tool to help address the current health crisis.”

“This transparent, public health-driven agreement is MPP’s first voluntary license for a COVID-19 medical technology, and we hope that Merck’s agreement with MPP will be a strong encouragement to others,” the statement added.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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