Japan to pay $1.2b for 1.6m courses of Merck’s virus pill

People wearing protective masks walk around the famed Shibuya scramble crossing in a shopping and entertainment district on Oct 25, 2021 in Tokyo. (KIICHIRO SATO / AP)

SINGAPORE / JERUSALEM / HANOI / JAKARTA / BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN / YANGON / ULAN BATOR / NEW DELHI / MANILA / KUALA LUMPUR – Merck & Co Inc and partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics said on Wednesday the Japanese government will pay about $1.2 billion for 1.6 million courses of their COVID-19 antiviral pill molnupiravir.

Countries have rushed to sign deals to buy molnupiravir, since data last month showed that when given early in the illness the drug could halve the chances of dying or being hospitalized for those most at risk of developing severe COVID-19. 

Countries have rushed to sign deals to buy molnupiravir, since data last month showed that when given early in the illness the drug could halve the chances of dying or being hospitalized for those most at risk of developing severe COVID-19

Merck expects to make 10 million courses of treatment by the end of 2021, with at least 20 million courses to be produced in 2022.

If it gets authorization, molnupiravir, would be the first oral antiviral medication for COVID-19.

On Tuesday, the US government said it would buy another $1 billion worth of molnupiravir. 

Meanwhile, Pfizer Inc has applied for approval from Japan's health ministry to use COVID-19 vaccines on children aged 5 to 11, it said in a statement released on Wednesday.

Pfizer's Comirnaty vaccine, developed in partnership with BioNTech, was the first COVID-19 vaccine approved for Japan's general public in February. COVID-19 vaccines developed by Moderna and AstraZeneca have since been approved.

Pfizer's vaccine is currently being offered to those aged 12 and above. If approved by the health ministry, it will be the first to be administered to children under 11 in Japan.

About 74 percent of the population is now fully vaccinated, according to broadcaster NHK, and the government is widely expected to start administering booster shots by year-end.

New Zealand's Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta attend a cabinet meeting at the Parliament House in Wellington on Nov 6, 2020. (DAVE LINTOTT / AFP)


Members of Asia-Pacific trade group APEC have reiterated a "strong stance" against vaccine nationalism to support the region's recovery from the pandemic, host New Zealand said on Wednesday.

New Zealand's Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta and Minister of Trade Damien O'Connor said all 21 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) member countries had contributed to the region's pandemic response and work towards progress on trade.

Members had not yet reached a consensus on the United States' offer to host the APEC summit in 2023, they said in a joint media conference.


Brunei reported 41 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, bringing the total tally to 13,905.

According to Brunei's Ministry of Health, the newly recorded cases included 40 local infections and one imported case.


India added 11,466 cases on Wednesday, pushing the overall tally to 34.4 million, while COVID-19-related deaths rose by 460 in a day to 461,849, latest data from the health ministry show. The country has administered 1.1 billion doses. 

As many as 96 countries, including the US, UK, Canada and Germany, have agreed to recognize India’s COVID-19 vaccination certificates in a move that will boost international travel, the health minister said in a statement.


Indonesia on Tuesday confirmed 434 new COVID-19 cases, raising the total tally of infections to 4,248,843, according to the country's Health Ministry.

The ministry reported that the death toll in the country rose by 21 to 143,578, while 585 more people recovered during the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of recoveries to 4,095,663.


The number of Israelis who have received the third dose of COVID-19 vaccine surpassed 4 million on Tuesday, the Israeli Ministry of Health said in a statement.

A total of 4,000,333 people in Israel, or 42.6 percent of the population, have received the third shot against the virus since the booster vaccination campaign was launched in Israel on Aug 1.


Malaysia and Indonesia plan to allow fully-vaccinated travelers to fly between the two nations, just days after a similar agreement was struck in one of the world’s busiest air routes.

The Southeast Asian neighbors may start vaccinated travel lanes from Kuala Lumpur International Airport to Jakarta and Bali. They aim to finalize and implement the plan early next year.

Malaysia reported another 5,403 new COVID-19 infections, as of midnight Tuesday, bringing the national total to 2,517,173, according to the health ministry.

Some 25 of the new cases are imported, with 5,378 being local transmissions, data released on the ministry's website showed.

Another 78 more deaths have been reported, bringing the death toll to 29,427.

About 5,311 patients have been released after recovery, bringing the total number of cured and discharged to 2,425,943.

There are some 61,803 active cases, 542 are being held in intensive care and 268 of those are in need of assisted breathing.

The country reported 116,642 vaccine doses administered on Tuesday and some 78.3 percent of the population have received at least one dose and 75.5 percent are fully vaccinated.


Mongolia registered 950 new COVID-19 cases over the past 24 hours, bringing the national tally to 370,491, the country's health ministry said on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, 11 more COVID-19 patients, including a child, died in the past day, taking the death toll to 1,767, according to the ministry.


The number of COVID-19 cases in Myanmar has risen to 508,591 on Tuesday after 776 new cases were reported in the past 24 hours, according to a release from the Ministry of Health.

According to the release, 16 more deaths were reported, bringing the death toll to 18,855 in the country as of Tuesday.

ALSO READ: Iran's COVID-19 caseload tops 6m

People return to shopping at Newmarket in Auckland, New Zealand as some COVID-19 restrictions were eased on Nov 10, 2021. (ALEX BURTON / NEW ZEALAND HERALD VIA AP)

New Zealand

Shops and malls in New Zealand's biggest city Auckland flung their doors open for the first time in three months on Wednesday as the city, which is at the epicentre of the country's coronavirus outbreak, gradually reopened.

Retail stores filled up within hours of reopening due to pent up demand while some shoppers reportedly queued up outside malls overnight to take advantage of early bird offers at some stores.

Libraries, museums and zoos were also allowed to receive visitors as the government eased coronavirus restrictions amid a pick-up in vaccination rates and due to mounting pressure from critics calling for more freedom.

The hospitality sector, however, remained shut.

In her first visit to the city since it was locked down on Aug 17, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the hospitality sector will reopen as soon as Auckland hits its vaccination target.

Ardern has said the city will move into a new "traffic-light" system to manage outbreaks rather than lockdowns once 90 percent of Aucklanders have been fully vaccinated. So far, about 84 percent of Aucklanders have received their second doses.

Auckland schools can return to face-to-face learning from Nov 17, the government said.

Apart from the 1.7 million Aucklanders, and residents in some neighbouring regions, life for the rest of the population has largely returned to normal domestically although the country's borders still remain tightly shut.

This file photo taken on Sept 6, 2021 shows a nurse in a personal protective suit walking past patients suspected of having COVID-19 in a parking lot-turned-into ward outside a hospital in Binan, Laguna province, south of Manila. (MARIA TAN / AFP)


The Philippines on Wednesday received an additional batch of Sinovac CoronaVac vaccines purchased from the Chinese vaccine maker.

China has been delivering CoronaVac vaccines to the Philippines since Feb. 28. It was the first country to provide coronavirus shots to the Philippines, allowing the Southeast Asian country to kick off its vaccination drive on March 1.

The Philippines has administered nearly 65 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines. Almost 30 million people have been fully vaccinated. The government aims to vaccinate up to 70 percent of its 110-million population this year.

The Philippines' Department of Health (DOH) reported 2,646 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the total tally to 2,809,311.

The DOH also reported that 99 more patients died from COVID-19 complications, bringing the coronavirus death toll to 44,665. Seven laboratories failed to submit data.

An officer manages the flow of people into a market in an attempt to curb the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Singapore on Oct 9, 2021. (ROSLAN


Four Asiatic lions at Singapore's Night Safari have tested positive for COVID-19, the Straits Times reported on Tuesday evening, quoting the Animal and Veterinary Service (AVS).

The AVS, which is under the National Parks Board, said that the four lions, as well as an African lion at the Singapore Zoo, had exhibited mild signs of sickness including coughing, sneezing and lethargy on Saturday and Monday respectively.

The lions have been exposed to infected staff from Mandai Wildlife Group previously.

The testing for the African lion that had shown signs of sickness is ongoing.

According to the newspaper, the AVS has issued an order under the Animals and Birds Act to Mandai Wildlife Group to isolate all nine Asiatic lions and five African lions in their respective dens.

Meanwhile, Singapore reported 3,397 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, bringing the total tally in the country to 224,200.

Of the new cases, 3,222 were in the community, 169 were in migrant worker dormitories and six were imported cases, the Ministry of Health said in a press release.

ALSO READ: Malaysia's COVID-19 infections surpass 2.5m

South Korea

South Korea encouraged its citizens to take COVID-19 booster shots on Wednesday, as more of the elderly fell ill and reported vaccine breakthrough infections, driving serious and critical cases to a record.

Severe coronavirus cases jumped from the mid-300s in October to 460 on Wednesday, official data showed. Of the severely ill patients, more than 82 percent were aged 60 and older.

Son Young-rae, a senior health ministry official, told a news conference that the increase is not posing a threat to the country's healthcare system yet, as there are nearly 500 ICU beds available.

He said the speed of the rise in severe cases and the size of total infections, especially among the unvaccinated, are the major points to consider in deciding its future response to the healthcare system.

South Korea's overall rate of vaccine breakthrough infections remains low at 85.5 people per every 100,000 inoculated.

But it has steadily risen in recent weeks, led by the elderly, as vaccine protection wanes over time and the group's weaker immune system makes them more vulnerable to infections.

Of the total serious and critical patients with vaccine breakthrough infections in the past eight weeks, 93 percent were from those aged 60 and above, according to the government data.

The country has inoculated 640,232 people with a booster shot, since the program began last month, mainly using vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna.

South Korea started a gradual easing of COVID-19 restrictions this month, as it has fully vaccinated nearly 90 percent of its adult population, or 77 percent of its 52 million people.

The authorities have said a circuit breaker will be issued when there is a major strain on the number of hospital beds to treat serious cases, but have not revealed the exact threshold.

The country reported 2,425 new cases for Tuesday. It has recorded a total of 385,831 infections, with 3,012 deaths so far.


Thailand will set aside up to 500,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines for foreign workers as it prepares to welcome them back to the country to help ease a labour shortage, a government minister said on Wednesday.

The government plans to allow workers from neighbouring Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos to re-enter the country beginning next month and fill up shortages in big exporting industries such as food and rubber production.

Workers will be placed in a two-week quarantine and during that time the vaccines will be administered, Labor Minister Suchart Chomklin said. They will also be tested for COVID-19.

"We have prepared 400,000 to 500,000 doses to inoculate migrant workers," he said. The Labor Ministry estimates there is an immediate demand for 420,000 migrant workers.

Easing the controls will also help stop smuggling of workers, the government said.

Nearly 11,000 people were arrested in cases linked to smuggling last month, compared to 1,456 arrests over the same period last year.


Vietnam has approved India's Covaxin vaccine for emergency use, the ninth to be endorsed in the country, the country's health ministry said on Wednesday.

The government said in July it was seeking to secure 15 million doses of the Covaxin vaccine made by Bharat Biotech.

Meanwhile, Vietnam will by the end of this month have sufficient vaccines to cover its population against COVID-19, a deputy prime minister said on Wednesday.

"The fight against the pandemic, however, will continue," Vu Duc Dam told the national assembly, adding people must maintain health protocols.