Merck Canada to manufacture COVID-19 antiviral drug in Canada for global distribution

Merck Canada announced on Monday that it is partnering with Thermo Fisher Scientific to manufacture its COVID-19 antiviral drug in Canada for global distribution in a deal Ottawa hopes will help jump-start the country’s position as a biomanufacturing centre and better secure its supply chain for future public health emergencies.

The existing Thermo Fisher facility in Whitby, Ont. will produce doses of molnupiravir, an investigational drug developed in collaboration with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, for distribution in Canada, the U.K., the European Union, Asia Pacific, and Latin America, pending approvals in those respective regions. The drug is awaiting approval by Health Canada.

The facility was chosen because of the capacity, capability, and speed with which it is able to produce the drug, Merck Canada’s new president Marwan Akar said during a press conference.

The Whitby location is one of three facilities in the world that will produce this pill, which would be the first drug treatment for COVID-19 patients can take at home.

“We are marking a very key milestone, and rebuilding Canada's biomanufacturing capability,” Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry Francois-Philippe Champagne said during the news conference.

“We’ll be producing COVID medications for Canadians and indeed for the world… so to me this is a very big step in how we intend to rebuild our biomanufacturing sector in Canada.”

Earlier in the pandemic, Canada came under criticism for its inability to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines domestically, leaving Ottawa reliant on U.S. and European manufacturers to produce and provide doses. To ensure Canadians had access to vaccines as they became available, the federal government ordered hundreds of millions of doses of vaccine candidates from more than half a dozen companies.

Minister Champagne said the latest announcement is part of the government’s efforts to ensure Canada is better prepared and that “we redesign the supply chain so whatever may come next, we would be ready.”

The new manufacturing deal will also help Ontario’s economic recovery with a $19 million capital investment supporting more than 50 high-paying jobs in the region, according to Victor Fedeli, Ontario Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade.

ANTIVIRAL LESS EFFECTIVE THAN FIRST THOUGHT

Last week, the federal government signed a deal with Merck to purchase 500,000 molnupiravir pills, with an option for another half million, pending approval. Request for approval of the drug was submitted in August.

The company says its oral pill reduced the risk of hospitalization or death by about 30 per cent for at-risk, non-hospitalized adult patients with mild or moderate infection. This was sharply lower than the 50 per cent reported in the initial data.

In a narrow vote last week, a panel of expert advisers to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended the drug be authorized for treatment of COVID-19, but expressed concerns over whether it could cause the virus to mutate and its potential to cause birth defects. Studies in rats showed the drug caused toxicity and birth defects at very high doses.

While Merck has yet to conduct specific research on the medication’s effectiveness against the Omicron variant, the company appeared confident that it should have some potency based on its effectiveness against other variants. Final authorization for emergency use by the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is pending.

Antiviral drug treatments are considered another tool in the fight against COVID-19, experts say, after personal protective equipment, testing, and vaccines.

With files from The Associated Press