Merck’s groundbreaking COVID-19 pill, molnupiravir, is great news to the world, but a catastrophic blow to companies that make coronavirus vaccines. After the pharmaceutical giant on Friday reported trial data showing that molnupiravir, developed with its partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, can reduce the risk of COVID-19 hospitalization and death by half, shares of vaccine makers tumbled, especially those whose COVID-19 vaccines have yet to reach the market.
Pfizer shares fell 4 percent on Friday; BioNTech slumped 15 percent; Moderna was down 14 percent; and Novavax plummeted more than 22 percent.
While the U.S. sell-off continues on Monday, the impact of Merck’s “magic pill” has also spread to Asia and the developing world.
China’s Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group, which has a deal to distribute the Pfizer vaccine in Greater China, fell 19 percent in Hong Kong Monday morning. CanSino Biologics, another Chinese COVID-19 maker, plunged as much as 23 percent.
“This is on the back of Merck’s game-changer pill, which still requires emergency use authorization from the FDA before being rolled out,” Justin Tang, the head of Asian research at United First Partners, told Bloomberg. “Investors will need to take a ‘sell-first ask-later’ stance given current elevated valuation levels of vaccine stocks.”
Merck said it will apply for the FDA’s EUA for molnupiravir as soon as possible. If everything goes according to the plan, the drug could be approved for emergency use later this month.
Molnupiravir is the first oral COVID-19 treatment intended for widespread use in patients with early symptoms. The positive trial results reported last week raised hopes that the pandemic could be brought under control sooner than expected and that vaccines may not be the only available tool.
Yet, public health experts stress that an antiviral pill isn’t an alternative to vaccines and that people should still get their shots.
“I mean this idea about ‘we have a drug, don’t get vaccinated,’ just doesn’t make any sense,” President Biden’s chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “If you look at the people who get hospitalized and the people who die, it is overwhelmingly weighted toward the people who are unvaccinated.”
“It certainly is likely that some people will take, if you will, refuge that should they become infected, a pill might be available that could help them avert serious disease…[But] it’s not a magic pill…it doesn’t take the place of the vaccine,” William Schaffner, a professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Infectious Diseases Division, told MarketWatch on Friday.