Recently, the American pharmaceutical company Merck & Co, together with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, announced the successful development of the first coronavirus pill that halves the risk of death. The drug was named after Thor's hammer, Mjolnir, Molnupiravir. In theory, the drug should become a "hammer for SARS-CoV-2" and new aggressive mutations.
An independent panel that monitored trials involving people at high risk of serious consequences advised stopping the studies prematurely since Molnupiravir showed positive results. The company has already filed an application for drug approval with the US Food and Drug Administration.
In addition to Merck, similar drugs for Covid-19 are also being developed by Pfizer and Roche, and new treatments for coronavirus may soon appear on the market. We will tell you why everyone is so waiting for the appearance of coronavirus pills, how they work and whether they can completely replace vaccines in the fight against the pandemic.
Why is there so much attention around the drug?
If approved, Molnupiravir will be the first simple coronavirus pill that at-risk patients will be able to take at home, the BBC reports.
Other drugs, such as dexamethasone, are already saving the lives of sick patients, but in hospitals, as they need to be given by injection or intravenous infusion. The medicine should protect patients from serious illnesses, and taking medicine at home should reduce the burden on hospitals. This could potentially save the healthcare system millions of dollars. Molnupiravir should be taken as soon as symptoms appear at an early stage of infection.
The company's vice president, Daria Hazuda, said the antiviral drug for unvaccinated people or those less susceptible to immunity from vaccines is an important tool in helping to end the pandemic.
Merck already has competitors - other companies are also working on similar treatments. American competitor Pfizer recently began trials of two different antiviral pills, as did the Swiss company Roche. The results of clinical trials of these two tablets are expected in the next few months.
How does it work?
The pill was originally developed to treat the flu. It introduces errors in the genetic code of the virus and prevents it from spreading in the body.
Unlike most Covid-19 vaccines, which target a spike protein outside of the virus, treatment works by targeting an enzyme that the virus uses to make copies of itself. The main difference between Molnupiravir and vaccines is that it resists an existing infection, and does not reduce the risk of coronavirus infection.
The drug is supposed to be taken four capsules twice a day for five days - a total of 40 tablets per course of treatment.
Merck said this should make the pill equally effective against new variants of the virus as it mutates in the future.
The research data was released in a press release on Friday and has not yet been peer-reviewed. However, an independent panel of medical experts overseeing the study recommended an early termination.
Early research suggests the drug can reduce hospital admissions and mortality by about 50% in mild to moderate patients. The study involved 775 unvaccinated adults with mild to moderate Covid-19. They were considered to be more at risk of serious illness due to health problems such as obesity, diabetes, or heart disease.
"This exceeded what I expected from the drug in this clinical trial. When you see a 50% reduction in hospital admissions or deaths, it has a significant clinical impact," said Ding Li, vice president of research at Merck.
Half of the subjects were given a five-day course of pills. 53 patients (14%) in the placebo group were hospitalized compared with 28 (7%) of those who received the drug. There were no deaths in the pill group after this period, compared to 8 deaths in the placebo group, according to Merck.
However, caution is needed as the performance indicator can fluctuate with relatively few participants.
The incidence of drug-related side effects was similar in the Molnupiravir group and in the placebo group. Mild side effects, which may include headaches, were reported with the same frequency in both groups (with the real drug and placebo). These rates were 12% and 11%, respectively.
Other data on side effects have not yet been released, they will be key to finding out how widely the drug can be used.
When can mass adoption begin?
The pill may be available in the US in a few months after it is found to cut hospital admissions and deaths in half. The US government has already purchased 1.7 million doses of the drug at a price of $ 1.2 billion.
Merck will also seek approval for the drug in other countries. The company said it will use a "tiered pricing approach" to reflect countries' ability to pay for the drug.
Will the pill end the pandemic?
The appearance of such medicine should not cause complacency. Vaccines remain the most effective tool for ending this pandemic, reports The Bloomberg.
If the new drug Molnupiravir is seen as a solution for those who refuse vaccination, then Covid-19 will not disappear anywhere. And if the virus continues to circulate, new mutations could arise that could potentially make vaccines less effective than they are.
Undoubtedly, Molnupiravir can be a solution for many patients. But in the first place, vaccination can prevent infection with Covid-19, and not just treating sick people when they become infected.