An experimental COVID-19 treatment pill, called molnupiravir and developed by Merck & Co Inc and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics LP, is seen in this undated distribution photo published by Merck & Co Inc and obtained by Reuters on May 17, 2021. Merck & Co Inc / Handout via REUTERS

A UN-backed agency has reached an agreement with nearly 30 generic drug manufacturers to make cheap versions of Merck’s COVID-19 pill molnupiravir for poorer countries, expanding access to a drug seen as a weapon to fight the pandemic.

The antiviral drug, which received emergency use approval in the United States in December, reduces hospitalizations and deaths by about 30% in high-risk patients, according to clinical trials.

The agreement, negotiated by the UN-backed Medicines Patent Pool (MPP) with Merck, allows 27 generic drug manufacturers from India, China and other countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East to manufacture ingredients and the finished drug.

The MPP said Thursday that the deal would see the pill distributed to 105 least developed countries.

The developers of molnupiravir, which together with Merck is the US company Ridgeback Biotherapeutics and Emory University, will not receive royalties from the sale of cheap versions made by generic drug companies as long as COVID-19 is classified as a public health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO).

“This is a critical step in securing global access to much-needed COVID-19 treatment, and we are confident that with manufacturers working closely with regulators, pre-treatments will be readily available,” said MPP CEO Charles Do.

Bangladesh’s Beximco Pharmaceuticals, India’s Natco Pharma, South Africa’s Aspen Pharmacare and China’s Fosun Pharma are among the generic pharmaceutical companies that will manufacture the final product.

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