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France cancels order for Merck's COVID-19 antiviral drug

PARIS, Dec 22 (Reuters) - France has cancelled its order for Merck & Co's COVID-19 antiviral drugs following disappointing trial data and hopes instead to receive Pfizer's drug before the end of January, the health minister said on Wednesday.

France is the first country to publicly say it has cancelled an order for the Merck treatment after the company released data in late November suggesting its drug was markedly less effective than previously thought, reducing hospitalisations and deaths in its clinical trial of high-risk individuals by about 30%.

"The latest studies weren't good," Olivier Veran told BFM TV.

Merck did not immediately respond to Reuters' request for comment.

While vaccines are the main weapons against COVID-19 for governments, there are hopes Merck and Pfizer's experimental pills could be a game-changer in reducing the chances of dying or hospitalisation for those most at risk of severe illness.

France had placed an early order for 50,000 doses of the drug molnupiravir developed by Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics.

The cancellation would not incur a cost, Veran said.

The EU drug regulator is expected to decide whether to approve the antiviral COVID-19 pills developed by Merck & Co and Pfizer in the new year.

Pfizer's Paxlovid has shown near 90% efficacy in preventing hospitalisations and deaths in high-risk patients.

France had purchased that drug instead, Veran said, without saying how many doses it had secured.

"France is lined up to get it before the end of January," Veran continued. It has not yet been decided whether the drug would be available over the counter in pharmacies, the minister said.

(Reporting by Mimosa Spencer; Additional reporting by Manas Mishra in Bangaluru; writing by Richard Lough; editing by Jason Neely)