Merck CEO talks about a potential COVID-19 pill, but stresses importance of vaccines

Johns Hopkins Health Policy Forum guest speaker Robert Davis emphasized the need to use every tool at our disposal in the fight against COVID-19

In anticipation of government approvals for Merck's promising COVID-19 pill, the pharmaceutical company is already manufacturing the drug at 17 different sites across eight different countries, according to CEO Robert M. Davis.

"We asked the question going back several months: If this works, would we be ready?" said Davis, featured guest at the third installment of the Johns Hopkins Health Policy Forum on Monday. "So we actually started our manufacturing, at risk, to be ready for hopefully what would be a potential positive outcome from our clinical study."

Merck released encouraging findings from that study last week, showing that the antiviral drug, molnupiravir, reduces risks of hospitalization and death by half in active cases of COVID-19. According to Davis, an independent group of medical experts monitoring the trial "reviewed the data and recommended that we stop the study … and move now to apply as quickly as we can for emergency use authorization with the U.S. government."

If molnupiravir secures that approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and equivalent bodies in other countries, Davis said Merck will be ready to "start to make that drug available on a global basis."

In addition to its internal manufacturing chain, he said Merck has granted voluntary licenses to eight generic drug companies, which will be "in a position to accelerate manufacturing of that product for the low and middle-income markets, which represent over 100 countries."

In his conversation with Alex Triantis, dean of the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, Davis touched on a range of drug policy issues, including Merck's goals with climate change and economic inclusion, and the supply chain complications the pandemic has exacerbated. A full video of Monday's event is available here.

Davis, who joined Merck as chief financial officer in 2014 and was named CEO in July, is the third expert to take part in the Health Policy Forum series, following Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Rochelle P. Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite the effectiveness of Merck's new COVID-19 pill, Davis stressed the continued importance of vaccinations. "[W]e need to continue to promote and drive for vaccination even in the face of new developments like molnupiravir," he said. "We still need more tools. This is an area where you cannot have too many different options."