Merck seeks Japanese approval for COVID-19 drug

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A Japanese unit of U.S. drugmaker Merck & Co. has applied to the health ministry for fast-track approval of molnupiravir, the group’s oral COVID-19 drug, it has said.

If approved, molnupiravir will be the first orally administered coronavirus drug to be put into practical use in Japan. The unit made the announcement Friday.

The drug, which would be available on a prescription basis, is expected to reduce the risk of developing serious symptoms, hopefully easing the burden on the country’s medical care system.

Molnupiravir, being developed jointly by Merck and U.S. biotechnology company Ridgeback Biotherapeutics LP, is an oral antiviral drug designed to curb the proliferation of the virus. Its use was approved in Britain last month.

In clinical trials conducted in Japan, the United States and elsewhere, molnupiravir reduced the risk of hospitalization and death by about 30% for mildly and moderately ill COVID-19 patients.

The government aims to put an oral COVID-19 drug into practical use by year-end.

Besides Merck, U.S. drugmaker Pfizer Inc. has also applied for emergency use of its oral drug in the United States. In Japan, Shionogi & Co. is developing its own drug, aiming to start distributing it by the end of March.

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