Australia orders Merck COVID pill, as Victoria posts record cases

Officials say drug offers a ‘much easier’ way to treat people as states eye relaxing lockdowns for fully vaccinated.

After stepping up its vaccination campaign, Australian cities including Melbourne and Sydney are looking to ease lockdown for the fully vaccinated [William West/ AFP]

Australia has said it will buy 300,000 courses of Merck’s promising antiviral drug, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday, as the state of Victoria logged the highest number of daily COVID-19 cases of any state in the country since the pandemic began.

Molnupiravir, which would be the first oral antiviral medication for COVID-19 if it gets regulatory approval, could halve the chances of people most at risk of severe COVID-19 dying or being hospitalised from the disease, according to experts.

“These treatments mean that we are going to be able to live with the virus,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Nine News on Tuesday as Australia aims to reopen its borders next month for fully vaccinated citizens and permanent residents.

An adult course of molnupiravir requires the patient to take one pill, twice a day, for five days. It does not require refrigeration.

“An oral pill is obviously a much easier means of helping people,” Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters. “These would be made available on the basis of need right across the country.”

The drug is expected to be available in Australia by early next year if approved by the country’s drug regulator.

Merck expects to produce 10 million courses of the treatment by the end of 2021.

South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan and Malaysia have all said they are in talks to buy the potential treatment, while the Philippines is running a trial on the pill.

Australia’s biggest cities have been in lockdown for weeks as authorities try to control an outbreak of the more infectious Delta variant, and boost vaccination levels. By Tuesday morning, the national first-dose rate in the adult population was more than 80 percent.

A total of 1,763 new cases were reported in Victoria, exceeding the previous daily high of 1,488 on Saturday, with the state looking to start reopening once full vaccination levels among its adult population reaches 70 percent, from 53 percent now. That is expected to happen at about the end of this month.

Dominic Perrottet, who was elected as the new premier of New South Wales on Tuesday, said the state was on track for the fully vaccinated to exit lockdown on October 11, the first Monday after it expects 70 percent of its population over 16 to be fully vaccinated.

Daily infections in the state fell to the lowest in seven weeks on Tuesday with 608 new cases, most of them in Sydney, the state capital. Seven deaths were recorded.

Even with the Delta outbreaks, Australia still has relatively low coronavirus numbers, reporting a total of about 115,800 cases.

Some 1,357 people in Australia have died from the disease, but the vaccination of vulnerable people has reduced the mortality rate for the disease.

Source: Al Jazeera, Reuters