COVID pill halves risk of death or hospitalization, US drug maker Merck says
Drugmaker Merck said its experimental pill for people with COVID-19 halved hospitalizations and deaths, representing a potential leap forward in the global fight against the pandemic.
If cleared by regulators, it would be the first pill shown to treat COVID-19.
The company said it would soon ask health officials in the United States and around the world to authorize the use of the pill. A decision by the United States Food and Drug Administration could be made within weeks, and the drug, if approved, could be distributed quickly soon after.
A pill taken at home would ease the pressure on hospitals and could also help curb epidemics in the poorest and most remote corners of the world that do not have access to the most expensive infusion therapy.
Merck and its partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics said initial results showed that patients who received the drug, molnupiravir, within five days of COVID-19 symptoms had about half the hospitalization and death rate they those who received a dummy pill.
The study followed 775 adults with mild to moderate COVID-19 who were considered at high risk for serious illness due to health conditions such as obesity, diabetes or heart disease. The results were not reviewed by external experts, the usual procedure for monitoring new medical research.
Of the patients taking molnupiravir, 7.3 percent were hospitalized or died after 30 days, compared to 14.1 percent of those receiving the dummy pill. After that period, there were no deaths among those who received the drug, compared to eight in the placebo group, according to Merck.
The results were so strong that an independent group of medical experts overseeing the trial recommended stopping it early.
Company executives said they plan to submit the data to the FDA in the coming days.
COVID vaccines still important
Experts stressed the continued importance of vaccines in controlling the pandemic, as they help prevent transmission and also reduce the severity of the disease in those who are infected.
White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients said vaccination would remain the government’s main strategy to control the pandemic. “We want to prevent infections, not just wait to treat them when they arise,” he said.
Dr Anthony Fauci, the government’s leading authority on infectious diseases, called Merck’s results “very good news.”
Health experts, including Fauci, have long called for a convenient pill that patients could take when symptoms of COVID-19 first appear.
Merck has only studied its drug in unvaccinated people. But FDA regulators may consider clearing it for wider use in vaccinated patients who show breakthrough symptoms of COVID-19.
Andrew Pekosz of Johns Hopkins University predicted that vaccines and antiviral drugs would eventually be used together to protect against the worst effects of COVID-19.
“These should not be viewed as substitutes for vaccination – both should be viewed as two strategies that can be used together to dramatically reduce serious disease,” said Pekosz, a virology specialist.
The U.S. government has committed to purchasing enough pills to treat 1.7 million people, assuming the FDA clears the drug. Merck said it could produce pills for 10 million patients by the end of the year and has contracts with governments around the world.
The results reported on Friday included patients from Latin America, Europe and Africa.