Merck’s COVID pill cuts deaths, hospitalisations by half: Report

Drugmaker Merck has said its experimental COVID-19 pill reduced hospitalisations and deaths by half in people recently infected with the coronavirus and that it would soon ask health officials in the United States and around the world to authorise its use.

If cleared, the drug would be the first pill shown to treat COVID-19, a potentially major step forward in global efforts to control the pandemic. All COVID-19 therapies now authorised in the US require an IV or injection.

“With these compelling results, we are optimistic that molnupiravir can become an important medicine as part of the global effort to fight the pandemic,” said Robert Davis, the company’s CEO and president, in a statement on Friday.

A pill that could be taken at home, by contrast, could keep many patients out of the hospital, easing the workload on strained healthcare professionals.

It could also help curb outbreaks in lower-income countries that do not have access to the more expensive infusion therapies.

Merck and its partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics said early results showed patients who received the drug, called molnupiravir, within five days of COVID-19 symptoms had about half the rate of hospitalisation and death as patients who received a dummy pill.

The study tracked 775 adults with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 who were considered at higher risk for severe disease due to health problems such as obesity, diabetes or heart disease. The results have not been peer-reviewed by outside experts, the usual procedure for vetting new medical research.

Among patients taking molnupiravir, 7.3 percent were either hospitalised or died at the end of 30 days, compared with 14.1 percent of those getting the dummy pill.

There were no deaths in the drug group after that time period compared with eight deaths in the placebo group, according to Merck.

An independent group of medical experts monitoring the trial recommended stopping it early because the interim results were so strong.

That is typical when early results show so clearly that a treatment works that there is no need for further testing before applying for authorisation. Company executives said they plan to submit the data for review by the Food and Drug Administration in the coming days.

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