Merck to give patients drugs for free in developing countries, thanks to Vatican

Merck (MRK) has agreed to share its drug patents with 20 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to provide access to more than one billion people in poor countries, the company announced this…

Merck to give patients drugs for free in developing countries, thanks to Vatican

Merck (MRK) has agreed to share its drug patents with 20 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to provide access to more than one billion people in poor countries, the company announced this week.

The deal, the largest-ever free and compulsory license agreement involving drug patents, according to Merck, will allow generic drug companies to produce cheap generic versions of the blockbuster diabetes drug sulfonylurea in India, China, Pakistan, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Panama, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Bolivia, the Republic of Congo, Honduras, Barbados, Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras, and Ecuador.

FDA-approved pills such as the generic version of Merck’s will be sold in the countries through nonprofit organizations supported by Merck, including Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health in Washington, D.C. Merck will also work with local companies to help manufacture the cheaper drugs, which would cost consumers about 1/50th the original price, which can reach $300 a pill, according to Merck.

“It’s important that Merck continues to promote access to lifesaving medicines in the developing world,” William Foster, president of Global Health, said in a statement. “Our experience with SGLT-2 in low- and middle-income countries shows that we can provide high-quality solutions without compromising the health of patients.”

Despite a high cost and possible side effects, people with diabetes are prescribed SGLT-2 drugs to prevent the buildup of clogged blood vessels. Merck reports that generics have already hit the market for the drug in the U.S. and other developed countries, but the company says that because of the cost of the medicine, many patients cannot afford it.

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In Africa, most patients receive an insulin injection, which is recommended by doctors because the needles are often dangerous. There is no pill with comparable efficacy and only about 50,000 such patients in Africa each year.

Despite the benefits, SGLT-2 inhibitors have been stigmatized in many African communities because they are seen as dangerous, and some families prefer an alternative treatment that is familiar to them.

“This has been a hugely important announcement for us,” said Yunus Negga, CEO of NDI-Africa, a nonprofit organization that seeks to develop and disseminate medicines that benefit the health of all, especially Africans. “The drug market is slowly being democratized, and this will really accelerate that as we move closer to global health agreements on regulations and norms.”

Negga credited the Vatican with supporting the agreement and helped to speed it through the government and negotiate the deal.

“The partnership between Merck and the Vatican underscores the efforts of health philanthropies to find better solutions to address and address health needs by making medicines affordable for patients,” the Foundation for HIV/AIDS Research (amfAR) said in a statement.

Follow Neely on Twitter at @Iaimee7.

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