New COVID-19 Pill Could Reduce Severe Illness and Death

By Pat Carragher - October 07, 2021

A new drug has entered the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Pharmaceutical company Merck said its experimental pill reduced COVID hospitalizations and deaths by half. If approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it would be the first pill shown to treat COVID-19. Currently, all other FDA approved COVID-19 treatments are given intravenously or through an injection.

Merck announced Monday that it is seeking emergency use authorization for the pill, known as molnupiravir. A decision from the FDA could come in the following weeks. Like other antivirals, molnupiravir works by interfering with the virus’s ability to reproduce itself.

Dr. John Greene, Infectious Disease Program

“If you can take a pill that reduces chances of hospitalization from severe disease or death, that’s a game changer,” said Dr. John Greene, chair of the Infectious Diseases Program at Moffitt Cancer Center. “If you can take this early on and not even come to the hospital, this drug could be great.”

According to early test results released by Merck, patients who received the drug within five days of presenting COVID-19 symptoms had about half the rate of hospitalization and death as those who received a placebo.

The study looked at nearly 800 adults with mild to moderate COVID-19 cases who were considered high risk for severe disease. These risks included health problems like obesity, diabetes or heart disease.

Among patients who took the pill, just over 7% were either hospitalized or died after 30 days, compared with 14% of those who received the placebo. There were no deaths among those who received molnupiravir after 30 days.

According to Greene, when it comes to protecting cancer patients and other members of the immunocompromised population, this pill shouldn’t be looked at as an alternative to the COVID-19 vaccine.

“It only works to prevent infection while you’re taking the pill,” said Greene. “You wouldn’t want to give it to a bone marrow transplant patient so they don’t get infected. That’s overkill. You would have to be exposed or present a mild illness.”

Merck studied the drug only in people who were not vaccinated. Patients took four pills twice a day for five days.  Study results showed the drug did not benefit patients who were already hospitalized with severe disease.

If the drug receives FDA approval, the U.S. government has committed to purchasing enough pills to treat 1.7 million people.

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