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Merck pill seen as 'huge advance', raises hope of preventing COVID-19 deaths

Merck pill seen as 'huge advance', raises hope of preventing COVID-19 deaths

An experimental COVID-19 treatment pill called molnupiravir being developed by Merck & Co and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics is seen in this undated handout photo released by Merck & Co and obtained by Reuters, May 17, 2021. (Photo: Merck & Co/Handout via REUTERS)

"A HUGE ADVANCE"

Scientists welcomed the potential new treatment to help prevent serious illness from the virus, which has killed almost 5 million people around the world, 700,000 of them in the United States.

"A safe, affordable, and effective oral antiviral would be a huge advance in the fight against COVID," said Peter Horby, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at the University of Oxford.

The study enrolled patients with laboratory-confirmed mild to moderate COVID-19, who had symptoms for no more than five days. All patients had at least one risk factor associated with poor disease outcome, such as obesity or older age.

Drugs in the same class as molnupiravir have been linked to birth defects in animal studies. Merck has said similar studies of molnupiravir - for longer and at higher doses than used in humans - indicate that the drug does not affect mammalian DNA.

Merck said viral sequencing done so far shows molnupiravir is effective against all variants of the coronavirus including the highly transmissible Delta, which has driven the recent worldwide surge in hospitalisations and deaths.

It said rates of adverse events were similar for both molnupiravir and placebo patients, but did not give details.

Merck has said data shows molnupiravir is not capable of inducing genetic changes in human cells, but men enrolled in its trials had to abstain from heterosexual intercourse or agree to use contraception. Women of child-bearing age in the study could be pregnant and also had to use birth control.

The US drugmaker said it expects to produce 10 million courses of the treatment by the end of 2021.

The company has a US government contract to supply 1.7 million courses of molnupiravir at a price of US$700 per course.

Davis said Merck has similar agreements with other governments, and is in talks with more. Merck said it plans a tiered pricing approach based on country income criteria.

The US government has the option to purchase up to an additional 3.5 million treatment courses if needed, a US health official told Reuters. The official asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorised to comment publicly on the contract.

Merck has also agreed to license the drug to several India-based generic drugmakers, which would be able to supply the treatment to low- and middle-income countries.

Molnupiravir is also being studied in a Phase III trial for preventing infection in people exposed to the coronavirus.

Merck officials said it is unclear how long the FDA review will take, although Dean Li, head of Merck's research labs, said, "they are going to try to work with alacrity on this".

Source: Reuters/ga/dv

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