CHINA — Merck & Co. has said it would take legal action against some pharmaceutical companies after noticing that some manufacturers were supplying COVID-19 drugs to some provinces and cities saying the medicines were authorized by Merck.

It did not name the companies in the post on its official WeChat account in China. Merck added that it had started talks with Sinopharm on the drug’s production technology license so that Sinopharm can supply the drug in China.

Sinopharm would be able to make and supply Molnupiravir in China if the Beijing-based firm secures the production technology license, Merck China said on its WeChat account.

Sinopharm is the only legally authorized distributor of Merck’s COVID-19 antiviral Molnupiravir in China, Merck added, noting it never authorized any other companies in the country to produce Molnupiravir or make any generic drugs for sale in the country.

Molnupiravir is sold under the brand name Lagevrio and was developed by Merck and partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics.

Chinese regulators gave conditional approval for imports of Molnupiravir making it China’s second imported small-molecule Covid oral drug after Pfizer’s Paxlovid.

Merck said in September that China National Biotec Group, an affiliate of Sinopharm, would make the drug.

China’s abrupt dismantling of its zero-COVID regime starting last month has caught its public off-guard, prompting a hospital scramble for beds and blood and pharmacies to sell out of drugs as a giant wave of infections hit.

Public anger has been growing over the difficulty of access to COVID-19 drugs in China. A shortage of antivirals has already prompted some people in China to turn to the black market, often paying much higher prices for potentially low-quality medicines according to local media reports and social media posts.

Molnupiravir has been priced at CNY1,500 (US$ 222) per 40-capsule bottle on its first launch in China, Merck said.

That is less than its US$ 712 cost in the United States, Japan, and South Korea, and also cheaper than Paxlovid, which has a provisional price of CNY1,890 (US$ 280) a box through medical insurance in some parts of China.

Meanwhile, leading manufacturers of COVID-19 drugs appear to be resisting China’s efforts to lower their prices, highlighting the difficulties the country faces in providing antivirals to its vast population, as per Bloomberg news.

The apparent rejection coincides with a similar impasse regarding Pfizer Inc.’s antiviral Paxlovid. Talks between the drugmaker and the Chinese agency in charge of the US$423 billion state medical insurance program to reduce treatment costs fell through over the weekend.

Pfizer’s Bourla said the company’s Chinese partner will start domestic Paxlovid production soon. The drug has so far been imported from overseas by state-owned China Meheco Co. while Chinese generic drug giant Zhejiang Huahai Pharmaceutical Co. has a deal with Pfizer to make Paxlovid ingredients locally.

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