A New COVID-19 Pill Reportedly Cuts Hospitalizations and Deaths by Half

And substantially lessens the side-effects of contracting the virus.
Brad Bergan
Red pills on a metal tray.soniabonet / iStock

Popping a pill might help fight the coronavirus.

A new pill has seen great success in reducing the most severe and potentially permanent ends from contracting the COVID-19 illness, according to a Friday press release from the pharmaceutical company Merck & Co.

Regulatory approval is required for Merck to provide its pill to the general public, but if peer-review goes well, this could change the fight to curb the virus, for keeps.

Merck seeking emergency use authorization for new COVID-19 pill

The company claims a five-day course of the drug called molnupiravir successfully reduced coronavirus hospitalizations, along with deaths linked to subsequent illness, by half. And in the press release, Merck said it aims to work with health officials in the U.S. and abroad to fast-track emergency authorization for the pill. If the new pill is cleared for emergency use, it would become the first orally ingested means of treating the COVID-19 illness, which would constitute a substantial step forward in eradicating the pandemic. As of writing, all approved therapies for the virus in the U.S. are introduced via IV or injection. Merck, along with its partner company, Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, claimed its initial results suggested that patients who'd received molnupiravir no more than five days after noticing COVID-19 symptoms saw a 50% reduction in the rate of hospitalization and death.

This increase was confirmed against another group of patients who were given a placebo, and the study involved 775 adults possessing mild-to-moderate cases of COVID-19 who had previous health conditions that made them more susceptible to the virus, like obesity, heart disease, or diabetes. Not a single one of the participants was vaccinated. And among those who took molnupiravir, 7.3% were either hospitalized or died after 30 days had passed, which is roughly half of the 14.1% who received the placebo.

Merck's new COVID-19 pill could also prove effective against other viruses

Nobody died in the drug group after those first 30 days — a stark difference from the eight subsequent deaths that occurred within the placebo group, said Merck in its release. "A safe, affordable, and effective oral antiviral would be a huge advance in the fight against COVID," said Professor Peter Horby of emerging infectious diseases at the University of Oxford, in the U.K., according to a Reuters report.

While these results are extremely promising, they have yet to undergo peer review. Merck also aims to give a presentation on its findings during a forthcoming medical meeting. An independent group of medical officials who monitored the trial actually suggested the trial be halted early, because the results were so promising. The firm's executives claim they're already in discussions with the Food and Drug Administration, and will submit an application for the drug to receive emergency use authorization immediately. Marketing materials will also be distributed to various regulatory agencies around the world. Merck's new pill operates by interfering with a specific enzyme that the COVID-19 virus uses to copy its genetic code, and thus reproduce in the human body. Notably, this pill has also seen similar results against other viruses, which means it could have wider applications than helping to curb a global pandemic, which is saying a lot.

This was a developing story and was regularly updated as new information became available.

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