(CMR) Drugmaker Merck announced on Friday that it would be seeking emergency approval for molnupiravir, an oral antiviral treatment for COVID-19. They claim the experimental drug reduced the risk of hospitalization and death by 50 percent for people with mild to moderate symptoms in a late-stage trial. Stock prices immediately surged in response to the news.
The results were so strong that a group of medical experts monitoring the trial recommended stopping it early with company executives saying they plan to submit the data to the FDA in the coming days.
If FDA approved it would be the first oral antiviral for COVID-19. However, Merck revealed the early results in a press release but they have not yet published the results in a peer-reviewed medical journal. The results were based on 775 unvaccinated patients who enrolled in the phase three trial in August.
The group of patients who received the pill reported no deaths. However, those taking the placebo saw eight patients die. The interim analysis of the data found that 7.3 percent of patients treated with the pill were hospitalized within 29 days after the trial began, compared with 14.1 percent of patients who received a placebo and were either hospitalized or dead by that time.
Patients were prescribed four pills twice a day for five days. Side effects were reported by both groups but the company did not detail what those were. An earlier study showed the bill did not benefit those already hospitalized and severely ill.
Like other antivirals, Merck’s pill works by interfering with the virus’s ability to copy its genetic code and reproduce itself by inserting errors into its genetic code. The results reported Friday included patients across Latin America, Europe and Africa.
All current COVID-19 treatments presently authorized in the U.S. require an IV or injection. A pill that can be administered at home could be a game-changer for thousands; saving much-needed hospital space and resources.
The hope is that people will continue to see the benefits of vaccines as a preventative option to be used in conjunction with the pill for breakthrough cases. The U.S. government will purchase enough pills to treat 1.7 million people if it receives FDA approval. At an estimated price of about $700 per patient. That is about one-third of the current cost of a monoclonal antibody treatment, which is typically given to patients via intravenous hookups.
Several other companies, including Pfizer and Roche, are studying similar drugs and could report results in the coming weeks and months.