WASHINGTON — A new pill to treat COVID-19 has shown “impressive” results in clinical trials, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top medical adviser to President Biden, said during a Friday briefing by the White House pandemic response team.
The drug, called molnupiravir, is an antiviral treatment developed by the pharmaceutical giant Merck in conjunction with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics. In a press release, Merck said the drug, which is taken by mouth, “significantly reduced the risk of hospitalization or death” when administered to “at risk, non-hospitalized adult patients with mild-to-moderate COVID-19.”
Merck said that after 29 days, none of the 385 patients who had been given the new drug died, and only 28 had needed to be hospitalized. In a control group, which included 377 people receiving a placebo, 53 people required hospitalization and eight died.
Fauci said that he and others were apprised of the “very good news” by Merck on Thursday evening. He said Merck said it would submit its data “imminently” to the Food and Drug Administration.
“The data are impressive,” Fauci added, even as he cautioned that approval from the FDA could take time. Still, the federal government has already bought 1.7 million doses of molnupiravir, White House pandemic response team coordinator Jeff Zients said, a strong indication that approval is expected in due time.
COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has killed some 698,000 Americans. With roughly 70 million eligible Americans still not vaccinated, public health officials have to confront the reality that people will continue to become ill with COVID-19, making molnupiravir a potentially important treatment option in the future.
Recently, the Biden administration bought 1.7 million doses of a monoclonal antibody treatment from the drugmaker Regeneron, which has seen heavy usage in states like Florida that are experiencing a surge caused by the prevalence of the highly transmissible Delta strain of the coronavirus.
Promising as the news from Merck may be, public health officials do not want to distract from the fact that vaccination, as Zients put it, “remains by far and away our best tool against COVID-19. It can prevent you from getting COVID in the first place — and we want to prevent infections, not just wait to treat them once they happen.”
A more blunt assessment came from vaccine scientist Dr. Peter Hotez of Baylor College of Medicine’s National School of Tropical Medicine. “It’s not a miracle cure but a companion tool,” he wrote on Twitter. “So get vaccinated.”
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