A new COVID-19 pill halves the risk of death or hospitalization, drugmaker Merck claims.
Merck plans to file data on the antiviral medication with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the coming days. If they issue a favorable decision within a few weeks, the pill can be handed out shortly after.
If cleared, it would be the first pill shown to treat COVID-19.
All other therapies now approved in the US require an IV or injection. In contrast, a pill taken at home would ease the pressure on hospitals and could also help curb outbreaks in poorer and more remote corners of the world that lack access to the more expensive infusion therapies.
“This would allow us to treat many more people much faster and, we trust, much less expensively,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University who was not involved in the study.
Merck and its partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics said early results showed that patients given the drug, molnupiravir, within five days of COVID-19 symptoms had about half the number of hospitalizations and deaths than those given a fake pill.
The study followed 775 adults with mild to moderate COVID-19 who were considered to be at high risk for serious illness due to health conditions such as obesity, diabetes or heart disease. The results have not been reviewed by outside experts, the usual procedure for vetting new medical research.
Of the patients taking molnupiravir, 7.3 percent were either hospitalized or died after 30 days, compared with 14.1 percent of those given the dummy pill. After that period, there were no deaths among those who received the drug, compared with eight in the placebo group, Merck said.
The results were so strong that an independent group of medical experts following the study recommended stopping it early.
dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s foremost authority on infectious diseases, called Merck’s results “very good news.”
But even with the news of a potentially effective new treatment, experts stressed the importance of vaccines in managing the pandemic, as they help prevent transmission and also reduce the severity of the disease in those who become infected.
White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zies said vaccination will remain the government’s primary strategy to contain the pandemic. “We want to prevent infections, not just wait to treat them when they arise,” he said.
The US government has pledged to buy enough pills to treat 1.7 million people, assuming the FDA approves 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 company has not disclosed any prices.