Last Updated on October 13, 2021 by The Health Master
Drugmaker Merck asked U.S. regulators Monday to authorize its pill against COVID-19 in what would add an entirely new and easy-to-use weapon to the world’s arsenal against the pandemic.
If cleared by the Food and Drug Administration (USFDA), a decision that could come in a matter of weeks, it would be the first pill shown to treat COVID-19. All other FDA-backed treatments against the disease require an IV or injection.
An antiviral pill that people could take at home to reduce their symptoms and speed recovery could prove groundbreaking, easing the crushing caseload on U.S. hospitals and helping to curb outbreaks in poorer countries with weak health care systems.
It would also bolster the two-pronged approach to the pandemic: treatment, by way of medication, and prevention, primarily through vaccinations.
Merck and its partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutic said they specifically asked the agency to grant emergency use for adults with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 who are at risk for severe disease or hospitalization. That is roughly the way COVID-19 infusion drugs are used.
“The value here is that it’s a pill so you don’t have to deal with the infusion centers and all the factors around that,” said Dr. Nicholas Kartsonis, a senior vice president with Merck’s infectious disease unit. “I think it’s a very powerful tool to add to the toolbox.”
The company reported earlier this month that the pill cut hospitalizations and deaths by half among patients with early symptoms of COVID-19. The results were so strong that independent medical experts monitoring the trial recommended stopping it early.
Side effects were similar between patients who got the drug and those in a testing group who received a dummy pill. But Merck has not publicly detailed the types of problems reported, which will be a key part of the USFDA’s review.
U.S. officials continue to push vaccinations as the best way to protect against COVID-19. But with some 68 million eligible Americans still unwilling to get the shots, effective drugs will be critical to controlling future waves of infection.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, health experts have stressed the need for a convenient pill. The goal is for something similar to Tamiflu, the 20-year-old flu medication that shortens the illness by a day or two and blunts the severity of symptoms like fever, cough and stuffy nose.
Three USFDA-authorized antibody drugs have proved highly effective at reducing COVID-19 deaths, but they are expensive, hard to produce and require specialty equipment and health professionals to deliver.
Assuming USFDA authorization, the U.S. government has agreed to buy enough of the pills to treat 1.7 million people, at a price of roughly $700 for each course of treatment. That’s less than half the price of the antibody drugs purchased by the U.S. government, over $2,000 per infusion, but still more expensive than many antiviral pills for other conditions.
Merck’s Kartsonis said in an interview that the $700 figure does not represent the final price for the medication.
Eventually some experts predict various COVID-19 therapies will be prescribed in combination to better protect against the worst effects of the virus.