In late-stage trials, an antiviral pill reduced the risk of Covid-19 patients being hospitalized by half and dramatically reduced the risk of death, raising hopes for a new weapon in the virus’s arsenal.
The pill, molnupiravir, was primarily developed to treat influenza, but human trials have shown that it is also effective at reducing Covid-19-related deaths and hospitalizations.
Merck and Ridgeback Therapeutics will seek emergency use authorization in the US as soon as possible, and will submit their data to regulators around the world.
Throughout the pandemic, a simple pill that can be taken at home to stop the disease in its tracks has been a major goal. Until now, the only antiviral licenced to treat Covid-19 was remdesivir, but it has to be given intravenously and the results have been disappointing.
Other antivirals are being developed as well, including some that are specifically targeted at Covid-19, such as a pill that Pfizer is currently testing.
Merck expressed optimism that molnupiravir, which is named after Thor’s hammer Mjolnir, could become an important pandemic medicine.
In the trial, 775 patients with at least one risk factor for severe illness from all over the world, including the United Kingdom, started taking the drug within 5 days of the first onset of Covid-19 symptoms.
In the placebo group, 14.1 percent of patients (53 of 377 people) were admitted to the hospital, compared to 7.3 percent (28 of 385 people) in the molnupiravir group. During the trial, eight people died, none of whom were in the molnupiravir group.
Because of how effective the drug was proving, the trial was called off early. The information was published in a press release and has not been peer-reviewed. There were no serious side effects reported, and the placebo and molnupiravir groups experienced similar levels of adverse reactions.
Experts hailed the findings as “exciting” and “hugely promising” in terms of combating Covid-19 in the long run.
Professor Penny Ward, visiting professor in Pharmaceutical Medicine at King’s College London, told The Telegraph:
“The fact of the matter is that vaccines are not enough, and if we are going to control this outbreak, we need to effectively use every mechanism at our disposal.
“If it’s safe enough, this pill could be made available, for example, in community pharmacies… It’s a good day.”
According to the developers, the drug works by effectively stopping the virus from replicating in the body and is effective against a variety of variants.
Professor Peter Horby, emerging infectious diseases expert at the University of Oxford, said: “A safe, affordable, and effective oral antiviral would be a huge advance in the fight against Covid… these interim results are very encouraging.”
However, the researchers cautioned that more data was required, and that it would be critical to collect more information on side effects as well as the potential for antiviral drug resistance in the future.
If molnupiravir is approved by regulators, the US has already pre-ordered 1.7 million doses. Merck, known as MSD in the rest of the world, said it is in talks with several other governments and has entered licencing agreements with generic drug manufacturers to develop the drug for use in low- and middle-income countries.
Image Credit: Getty