Britain's antiviral chief hints at interest in Merck COVID-19 pill

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FILE PHOTO: The Merck logo is seen at a gate to the Merck & Co campus in Rahway, New Jersey, New Jersey
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LONDON (Reuters) - The chair of Britain's antivirals taskforce declined to comment directly about talks over Merck & Co Inc's experimental oral COVID-19 drug molnupiravir, but hinted at Britain's interest in buying the potential breakthrough pill.

Taskforce chair Eddie Gray was speaking to reporters after interim clinical trial results published on Thursday showed molnupiravir reduced the chance of hospitalisation or death for patients at risk of severe disease by about 50%.

"We are involved in looking closely at all of the options available, but we're really not in a position to give out the details around specific conversations at this moment in time," he told a briefing about molnupiravir after the results were published, which was also attended by a Merck representative.

Asked in the online briefing when he could give more details, he said: "The emergence of phase III data tends to accelerate all processes of this type, but I couldn't give you a specific date."

Speaking alongside Merck's vice president for infectious diseases discovery, Daria Hazuda, Gray hinted that Britain would look to buy the drug, saying: "I have chosen to turn up today to be here. Read into that what you wish."

Merck and partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics plan to seek U.S. emergency use authorisation for the pill as soon as possible, and to submit applications to regulatory agencies worldwide. Due to the positive results, the Phase III trial is being stopped early at the recommendation of outside monitors.

If authorised, molnupiravir, which is designed to introduce errors into the genetic code of the coronavirus, would be the first oral antiviral medication for COVID-19.

"We're committed to making this drug rapidly available in the UK," Merck's Hazuda said.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout; Editing by David Clarke)

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