First anti-Covid pill halves risk of hospitalisation or death, study shows
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First anti-Covid pill halves risk of hospitalisation or death, study shows

Molnupiravir. Credit: Merck

American pharmaceutical company Merck, known in Europe as MSD, and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics developed a pill against the coronavirus, with results showing that subjects who had Covid-19 and took the pill were 50% less likely to die or end up in hospital.

The Covid-19 pill, named Molnupiravir, is an antiviral drug that was originally developed against the flu virus, but Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics also tested the pill on people who had contracted the coronavirus in a series of clinical trials.

“It exceeded what I thought the drug might be able to do in this clinical trial,” said Dr. Dean Li, vice president of Merck research. “When you see a 50% reduction in hospitalisation or death, that is a substantial clinical impact.”

The latest phase of the study involved 775 subjects who all showed mild or moderate Covid-19 symptoms. Half of them were given Molnupiravir, the other half were given a placebo.

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Of the test subjects who were given the real drug, 7.3% ended up in hospital and none died. Of those who were given a placebo, 14.1% ended up in hospital and eight died, according to the results.

Merck calls the results “compelling” and plans to submit them for emergency use authorisation (EUA) to the American medicines agency FDA in the hope that Molnupiravir will be approved for use in Covid patients as soon as possible.

In the meantime, the company has already started production of the pill, and expects to produce enough pills to treat 10 million patients by the end of this year, with more expected to be produced in 2022.

Belgian virologist Johan Neyts, who is also working on a virus inhibitor against the coronavirus at the KU Leuven, called Merck’s announcement “good news” on Twitter.

“This is the first oral antiviral drug that really has a chance of being approved,” he told VRT. “It is also very easy to use. You just have to swallow the pill. There is no needle or drip involved.”

The idea is to take the pill as soon as the first symptoms appear, says Neyts. “It prevents the coronavirus from multiplying in your body. So it cannot make you severely ill. This will certainly be a new weapon in the fight against the coronavirus, alongside the vaccines we already had.”

Whether Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics are also intending to market Molnupiravir in Europe is not yet known, but it is not the only company working on a pill against the coronavirus.

Last week, vaccine producer Pfizer announced that its research on a similar pill is entering a final, clinical phase, meaning that the pill will be tested on a larger group of test subjects who, as in Merck’s study, have mild or moderate symptoms.

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