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Merck Covid pill raises new hope of reducing hospitalisation & death by up to 50%

Molnupiravir is an oral antiviral medicine meant to be taken by patients soon after symptoms manifest themselves, says Merck citing interim data

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New Delhi: The American pharmaceutical company Merck has announced a new drug that could reduce hospitalisations and halve the chances of death of those most at risk of contracting Covid-19.

The company released this statement through a press release on 1 October based on an interim analysis of Phase-3 trial data.

The drug, Molnupiravir, is an experimental, oral antiviral medicine meant to be taken by patients soon after symptoms manifest themselves.

According to the Phase-3 trial data, 14 per cent of participants in the placebo arm were either hospitalised or succumbed to the infection, whereas only 7.3 per cent receiving the drug met the same outcome.

After 29 days, no deaths were recorded in the arm receiving the drug, while 8 deaths were recorded in the placebo arm.

The drug works by introducing errors into the virus’s RNA, making it impossible for the virus to replicate.

The course involves four capsules twice a day for five days. Once taken, it “significantly reduced the risk of hospitalization or death,” Merck announced in a statement.

The company is seeking to secure emergency use authorisation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as soon as possible based on these findings.

It isn’t however, the only pharmaceutical to be working on a drug like this. Pfizer and Roche are also working on developing an antiviral medication to treat Covid. However, the results of their trial are unlikely to be released for another few months.


Also read: India’s Covid death rate likely to be 7-8 times higher than reported, study finds


The trial

To test the efficacy of Molnupiravir, Merck with partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics recruited 775 unvaccinated participants. The Phase 3 trial was originally meant to recruit 1,550 patients, but because of the “compelling results” of the interim analysis, an independent data monitoring committee halted further recruitment.

All participants were required to be PCR-confirmed cases of Covid, and with “at least one risk factor associated with poor disease outcome,” such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, or be over 60 years. Participants started treatment within five days of testing positive.

According to the statement, Molnupiravir reduced hospitalisations across all subgroups and maintained efficacy across the Gamma, Delta, and Mu strains of the virus. Efficacy was also unaffected by timing of symptom onset, and the group receiving the drug didn’t report adverse effects following treatment to a large degree (35 per cent in placebo arm versus 40 per cent in treatment arm).

Merck is, however, yet to publish a peer reviewed study of the interim analysis..

Accessibility

Merck has said it would produce 10 million courses of treatment by the end of 2021 in anticipation of the trial’s results.

The company has also signed an agreement with the U.S. government to supply approximately 1.7 million courses of Molnupiravir, subject to emergency use authorization by the U.S.F.D.A.

If approved, Merck says it plans to supply the drug worldwide, and plans to “implement a tiered pricing approach based on World Bank country income criteria to reflect countries’ relative ability to finance their health response to the pandemic.”

(Edited by Paramita Ghosh)


Also read: India could have seen 29 lakh excess deaths during Covid, says preprint by US-UK team


 

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