Pharmac has negotiated an agreement to purchase the antiviral drug molnupiravir that is used to treat people with COVID-19.
If given regulatory approval by Medsafe, it will be used to treat New Zealanders infected with the virus who have mild to moderate symptoms.
Pharmac chief executive Sarah Fitt says the signed agreement is for an initial supply of 60,000 courses. New Zealand will begin receiving it as soon as Medsafe gives it approval.
"[Supplier Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD)] recently announced trial results showing that molnupiravir considerably reduced hospitalisations and deaths from COVID-19. While these are interim results, they are very promising," Fitt says.
Pharmac has been proactively engaging with global pharmaceutical companies to secure access to safe and effective COVID-19 treatments in New Zealand due to ongoing health risks from the virus and the nature of the pandemic, she adds.
"We have changed the way we operate, using separate funding allocated by Government, to make sure that New Zealand can access new COVID-19 treatments," Fitt says.
"This is not the only new COVID-19 treatment we are working on. We are moving quickly to secure a range of new COVID-19 treatments for New Zealanders."
She can't say what these other medicines are or the companies they're talking with since negotiations are confidential.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says New Zealand is among the first countries to sign an advance purchase agreement for molnupiravir. She says antiviral medicines are an additional tool for the Government to fight COVID-19.
"The most important thing people can do to prevent themselves, children and vulnerable people getting COVID is to get vaccinated. However it's important we have medicines to help those who pick up the virus to avoid having to go to hospital," Ardern says.
"We are continuing to use a stamp-it-out strategy. But this purchase of 60,000 courses is based on the same population basis as the likes of Australia and Singapore, and is not an assumption about the level of COVID we may have in the future."
Ardern says molnupiravir has shown in interim trials to "greatly" reduce hospitalisations and deaths from COVID-19, and antiviral medicines can help reduce pressure on hospitals and intensive care departments.
"Pharmac has been commissioned by us to secure early access to new COVID-19 treatments, using funding from the Government's COVID-19 response and recovery fund," she says.
"I am hopeful that there will be further announcements to come in the future as their negotiations conclude."
While molnupiravir will treat those with mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms, Ardern encourages New Zealanders to get vaccination since that gives the best protection from the virus.