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Merck's antiviral pill shown to fight Covid-19

Health & Science

An experimental COVID-19 treatment pill called Molnupiravir being developed by Merck & Co Inc and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics LP, is seen in this undated handout photo released by Merck & Co Inc and obtained by Reuters May 17, 2021. [File/photo]

There is a silver lining in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic after an international pharmaceutical developed the first antiviral pill said to be effective against the virus.

The drug manufacturer- Merck’s clinical trial on the pill Molnupiravir has been demonstrated as cutting by half the risks of hospitalisation and deaths in people with Covi-19.

Merck announced on Friday that it was seeking emergency authorisation of the pill, by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

If approved for emergency use, the drug will be administered to high-risk populations, once they show symptoms of Covid-19.

Molnupiravir will be the first pill to treat Covid-19, with clinical trials indicating they have the potential of reaching a larger population, as compared to the current monoclonal antibody treatment, commonly used in the US, and the globe.

“I think it will translate into many thousands of lives being saved worldwide, where there’s less access to monoclonal antibodies, and in this country, too,” Dr Robert Shafer, an infectious disease specialist at Stanford University, told the New York Times.

The antiviral pill according to scientists stops the replication process by introducing Ribonucleic acid (RNA) into the virus genome as it multiplies, which creates numerous mutations, disrupts replication and kills the virus.

Currently, the world is using vaccines, to create herd immunity, and prevent the severity of the disease by a virus that continues to mutate.

Only 3,860,780 vaccines had been administered across Kenya, as of October 2. According to the Ministry of Health, of the doses, 2,934,734 were first doses, and 926, 337 the second ones.

“Proportion of adults fully vaccinated was 3.4 per cent,” noted the ministry’s report.

 White House coronavirus adviser Jeff Zients told international media that vaccination remains the best measure in the fight against the pandemic.

“The right way to think about this potential additional tool in our toolbox is to protect people from the worst outcomes of Covid-19,” Zients advised.

At least 775 participants were involved in the study, held in the USA.

In its findings, seven per cent of those in the group that received the drug were hospitalised, and none died, compared with a 14 per cent rate of hospitalization and death in the group that received placebo pills.

The predominant side effects for both pills were headaches.

However, the Molnupiravir pill appeared to be less effective than monoclonal antibody treatments, which have been in high demand recently.

“Studies have shown that they reduce hospitalisations and deaths by at least 70 per cent in high-risk Covid patients. But the antibody treatments are expensive, typically given intravenously and are cumbersome for hospitals and clinics to administer,” noted the findings.

Angela Rasmussen, a virologist and research scientist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organisation at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, noted that antiviral pills could have a greater impact by virtue of reaching more people.

“If the pills cut hospitalisations and deaths by half, that is going to translate to an objectively larger number of lives saved potentially with this drug,” she said.

She added, “Maybe it isn’t doing the same numbers as the monoclonal antibodies, but it’s still going to be huge.”

Merck is the world’s second-largest vaccine maker.

“With the antiviral pill, Merck hopefully can take what is potentially a life-threatening situation with Covid-19 and make it manageable,” Merck’s chief executive, Robert Davis, told the New York Times.

Clinical trials for two other antiviral pills, developed by Pfizer and Atea Pharmaceuticals and Roche, are expected to be out in the next few months.

The Molnupiravir pill will become available in the US and is expected to be available in the market by late this year.

The US government has promised to purchase 1.7 million courses of treatment at $700 each.

At a glance

Molnupiravir, originally developed to treat the flu, is an antiviral drug from global pharamaceutical Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics

Early results show it could halve the risk of hospitalisation or death when given to recently diagnosed patients at risk of developing severe illness

If approved, it would be the first antiviral pill for Covid-19 in the market. It would be taken twice-daily for five days orally

Molnupiravir, which has so far been found to be effective against all variants of the coronavirus, is designed to introduce errors into the genetic code of the virus

Other giant pharmaceuticals testing antiviral drugs include Pfizer, and Roche and Atea Pharmaceuticals

Pfizer is testing if its pill can prevent infection in people exposed to Covid-19 or benefit those who have tested positive but haven’t been hospitalised

Roche and Atea are testing if their antiviral can help treat or prevent Covid-19, with early results showing it reduces the viral load

An antiviral treatment could be a gamechanger – though vaccines to prevent Covid-19 already exist, there are few options to treat those who already have the viral disease

The majority of treatments available target the body’s immune response to the virus, not the virus itself, and are recommended for those already hospitalised

For non-hospitalised patients, options include monoclonal antibody treatments, which are expensive, in short supply and have to be administered intravenously in a hospital

A pill would be relatively cheaper, and easier to produce and distribute

[Sources: Merck, Reuters, Forbes]

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