The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has announced a commitment of up to Ksh. 13 billion (USD 120 million) as part of its COVID-19 response efforts. The funding will also help to accelerate access to the investigational antiviral drug molnupiravir for lower-income countries.

The donation will be allocated based on consultations with partners, and will support the range of activities required to develop and manufacture generic versions of the drug. The drug is being developed by Merck and Co in collaboration with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics.

This commitment builds on the Foundation’s ongoing efforts, including Ksh. 210 billion (USD 1.9 billion) in funding since the beginning of the pandemic. The Foundation has also worked to increase access to COVID-19 vaccines, treatments, and tests by supporting R&D, regulatory work, at-risk manufacturing, and product delivery.

Initial data reported by Merck suggests that molnupiravir, a broad-spectrum antiviral, can cut the risk of serious disease and death due to COVID-19 by half. Molnupiravir would be the first oral outpatient drug authorized for use in treating COVID-19 patients with mild and moderate disease. The decision on whether to authorize the drug for use sits with regulatory agencies, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and national governments.

The foundation has already provided expertise and funding to help strengthen generics manufacturers, including Ksh. 144 million (USD 1.3 million) to Medicines for All Institute (M4ALL) and the University of Manchester. This has been used to develop low-cost manufacturing processes that dramatically reduce the cost of raw materials and increase product yields. Several generics manufacturers are investigating these improvements already as they plan to scale up production following regulatory authorization.

“To end this pandemic, we need to ensure that everyone, no matter where they live in the world, has access to live-saving health products. The unjust reality, however, is that low-income countries have had to wait for everything from personal protective equipment to vaccines. That is unacceptable,” said Melinda French Gates, co-chair of the Gates Foundation.

The goal is to significantly reduce the time it takes for a new drug to reach low-income countries after it becomes available in high-income markets. The standard gap in rolling out global health products can be 12 months or more.

Since the start of the pandemic, the foundation has worked closely with a range of partners on R&D and delivery of COVID-19 tools. These partners include philanthropic and government donors that are part of the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator and global organizations in the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A) partnership, including Unitaid, UNICEF, WHO, the Global Fund, Wellcome, and the Africa Medical Supplies Platform.