New Experimental Drug Highly Effective and Would Be First to Treat COVID, Company Says

Pharmaceutical company Merck said the drug cut the risk of hospitalization and death by nearly half, and stopped the trial early to get it to patients as soon as possible

This handout photo obtained May 26, 2021 courtesy of Merck & Co,Inc. shows capsules of the investigational antiviral pill Molnupiravir. - Will pharmacies soon have boxes of anti-Covid drugs on their shelves? After vaccines, pharmaceutical companies are in line to develop a treatment to be swallowed simply at home, with a full glass of water, if symptoms appear. Because even if prevention is better than cure, as the saying goes, knowing how to heal remains crucial.
Molnupiravir. Photo: HANDOUT/Merck & Co,Inc./AFP via Getty

A new experimental drug developed to treat COVID-19 is highly effective and cut the risk of hospitalization and death by nearly half, pharmaceutical company Merck said Friday.

The drug, called molnupiravir, was so successful in clinical trials that an independent board of experts recommended ending the study early in the hopes of getting it to patients as soon as possible.

Merck said in a press release that they will apply for emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration as soon as they can.

"At the interim analysis, molnupiravir reduced the risk of hospitalization or death by approximately 50%," the company said. In the first month of the study, which included 775 people all of whom had at least one risk factor for severe illness such as obesity or advanced age, 14% of the patients who were hospitalized and given a placebo died, compared to 7.3% of patients who received molnupiravir. As the trial progressed, "no deaths were reported in patients who received molnupiravir, as compared to 8 deaths in patients who received placebo."

The study has not yet been peer reviewed or published.

Molnupiravir would be the first antiviral pill to treat COVID-19, and would be given twice a day for five days to patients diagnosed with the virus. Currently, the only approved treatment for COVID-19 is remdesivir, which is given through an IV to patients in a hospital and not used in all cases. Two other companies are also developing antiviral pills and are expected to share study data in the coming weeks.

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"We always believed antivirals, especially an oral antiviral, would be an important contribution to the pandemic," Daria Hazuda, vice president of infectious diseases and vaccine discovery at Merck, told The Washington Post. "Keeping people out of the hospital is incredibly important, given the emergence of variants and the continued evolution of the virus."

Molnupiravir would act as a treatment if a person contracts COVID-19, but the best method of prevention is still a vaccine. An increase in vaccine mandates has improved the vaccination rate in the U.S., but there are still large portions of the country that have yet to start their inoculations. As of Oct. 1, 64.6% of Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 55.6% are fully vaccinated. Among those who are eligible, people aged 12 and up, 75.5% have received at least one dose and 65.1% are fully vaccinated.

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