Countries in the Asia-Pacific region this week became some of the first after the United States to secure supplies of molnupiravir, the pill that the pharmaceutical company Merck says could halve the risk of hospitalization and death from Covid-19.
Merck said in June that the United States had agreed to buy enough pills for 1.7 million treatments, at a cost of $1.2 billion. This week, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea said that they had reached agreements with the drug maker to buy the pills, even though their regulatory agencies have yet to approve the drug. Thailand and Taiwan are also in talks with Merck to buy them, Reuters reported.
While many nations in Asia had a slow start at vaccinating against Covid-19, countries including Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea have now administered more vaccine doses than the United States per capita. Merck’s treatment, the first oral antiviral drug that can be taken at home, is expected to help limit the impact of future outbreaks and reduce the need for costly hospital treatment.
A patient would take four capsules twice a day for five days, or 40 pills total.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia said on Tuesday that his government had agreed to buy 300,000 courses, pending regulatory authorization, which could happen in early 2022.
“Vaccines and new treatments like this will boost our national plan to safely reopen Australia and keep Australia safely open,” he said in a statement.
Malaysia has struck a deal to secure 150,000 treatments, its health minister, Khairy Jamaluddin, said on Thursday. “This complements our successful vaccination rollout,” he said in a tweet, adding that the ministry would continue to buy more treatment options.
South Korea secured enough pills for more than 20,000 treatments and is continuing talks with the company to secure more, the office of Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said on Wednesday. The government has budgeted to buy 38,000 doses of the drug in total this year and next year, it said in a statement.
Singapore also secured a deal to purchase the drug, Merck said in a statement on Wednesday, according to Reuters. The health ministry confirmed the deal to Reuters but did not disclose the number of pills citing commercial sensitivities.
Merck did not immediately respond to a request for comment by telephone and email.
Merck has said it plans to seek emergency authorization for the pills to be used in the United States. Initially, the drug might be available only for people considered high risk, such as older people or those with comorbidities, though experts says that the pills could eventually become more widely available.
White House officials have said that people should get vaccinated even if Merck’s pill cuts deaths. Vaccination “remains far and away our best tool against Covid-19,” said Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus adviser.
President Biden is traveling to Chicago on Thursday to talk about vaccine mandates.
Chicago was picked in part because it is the home of United Airlines, one of the first major carriers to require shots for its 67,000 U.S. employees. Other airlines have followed with similar requirements, including American Airlines, Southwest, JetBlue and Alaska Airlines.
Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, announced the trip on Wednesday and said that Mr. Biden would focus on the success of vaccine mandates.
Mr. Biden said last month that he would use his presidential powers to require two-thirds of American workers be vaccinated against the coronavirus. That included a private sector to mandate that all companies with more than 100 workers require vaccination or weekly testing.
He also moved to mandate shots for health care workers, federal contractors and most federal workers, who could face disciplinary measures if they decline to be inoculated.
Mr. Biden will talk about the impact that those requirements are having, Mr. Zients said.
“We believe that vaccination requirements at workplaces are very effective and an efficient way to ensure people are vaccinated or tested,” Mr. Zients said.
United Airlines has said that it would terminate about 600 employees for not complying with its vaccination requirement. About 99 percent of its U.S. work force has been vaccinated, according to the airline.
Even as parents in the United States wrestle with difficult questions over vaccinating their children against the coronavirus, families in other countries have been offered a novel option: giving children just one dose of the vaccine.
Officials in Britain, Hong Kong, Norway and other countries have recommended a single dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children ages 12 and older — providing partial protection from the virus, but without the potential harms occasionally observed after two doses. On Wednesday, Sweden and Denmark joined the ranks, announcing that adolescents should get only one jab of the Moderna vaccine.
Health officials in those countries are particularly worried about increasing data suggesting that myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, may be more common among adolescents and young adults after vaccination than had been thought.
The risk remains very small, and significant only after the second dose of an mRNA vaccine. But the numbers have changed the risk-benefit calculus in countries where new infections are mostly lower than in the United States.
Advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reviewed data on myocarditis in June and unanimously voted to recommend the vaccine for children ages 12 and older, saying that the benefits far outweighed the risk.
Myocarditis was among the concerns that led the Food and Drug Administration to ask vaccine makers this summer to increase the number of children in clinical trials. The issue is likely to be the focus of intense discussion when agency advisers meet next week to review the evidence for vaccinations of children ages 5 to 11 years.
Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin of Idaho took advantage of an out-of-state trip by Gov. Brad Little on Tuesday to issue an executive order forbidding educational institutions to require proof of vaccination from employees. She said on Twitter that in her pursuit of “individual liberty,” she had “fixed” an order the governor had issued earlier.
Governor Little’s order, made in the spring, prohibits state agencies from requiring or issuing proof of Covid vaccinations, but does not specifically name universities and public K-12 schools. When he returned Wednesday from a trip to Texas, he promptly repealed Ms. McGeachin’s order, writing that he had notified her that “no official business would require her services in an acting governor capacity” during his absence.
The lieutenant governor, who is elected independently of the governor, is challenging Mr. Little for the position, and the two have feuded throughout their tenure. Ms. McGeachin has consistently criticized Mr. Little’s measures to contain the virus, casting his restrictions as government overreach. And this week was not their first round of political one-upping.
In May, when Mr. Little was away at the Republican Governors Association conference, Ms. McGeachin issued a ban on mask mandates, which he then repealed. Idaho did not have a statewide mask mandate, but an executive order required masks at long-term care facilities and said they were “strongly recommended” elsewhere. Nor did Mr. Little prevent municipalities from issuing their own directives on masks.
On Tuesday, Ms. McGeachin also asked about mobilizing the Idaho National Guard and sending troops to the Mexican border, where Mr. Little and other Republican governors had traveled that day.
Mr. Little replied on Facebook that “attempting to deploy our National Guard for political grandstanding is an affront to the Idaho constitution.” In the past he has described Ms. McGeachin’s activity in his absence as “irresponsible” and “self-serving.”
Asked about the battles, Jaclyn J. Kettler, a political scientist at Boise State University, noted that although both Mr. Little and Ms. McGeachin are Republicans, the lieutenant governor is further to the right politically and that there is tension between the two, particularly regarding coronavirus rules and restrictions.
While Ms. McGeachin’s base might be cheering her on for defying Mr. Little, Professor Kettler said, “there are many Idahoans that are perhaps baffled or frustrated with these type of developments.”
“The Covid situation here is not great,” she said.
About 42 percent of eligible people in Idaho are vaccinated, according to a New York Times database. The state’s recent weekly average has been about 1,300 new cases a day.