New COVID-19 pill reduces risk of hospitalization and death by half

Illustration by Lauren Johnson

Davina Efetie, Contributing Writer

Merck pharmaceuticals announced its new COVID-19 pill, molnupiravir, which reduced the risk of hospitalization and death of patients with COVID-19 by about 50%, according to its website.

According to the announcement, at the interim analysis of the study, 775 patients with confirmed cases of “mild-to-moderate” COVID-19 were either given molnupiravir — an “investigational oral antiviral medicine” — or a placebo treatment at random within five days of symptom onset.

Among the patients who were given molnupiravir, 7.3% were hospitalized within 29 days as compared to 14.1% of the placebo-treated patients. By day 29, there were no reported deaths from the patients who were given the pill, however there were eight deaths in patients who received the placebo treatment. In consultation with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, recruitment is being “stopped early due to these positive results,” according to Merck’s website.

Gonzalo Bearman, chair of the Division of Infectious Diseases at VCU Health, stated vaccines are the “most important intervention to prevent COVID-19 infection, severe disease and death.”

“If approved by the FDA, this treatment [the pill] could be an additional option for the management of COVID-19,” Bearman stated in an email.

Bearman also stated that he can’t determine whether students at VCU would receive the pill treatment as the school would need formal direction from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and approval from the FDA on who should receive the treatment.

“I don’t want to get ahead of them. I can’t predict when it will be, but I can tell you one thing. They will do it as quickly as they possibly can,” said White House Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Junior English major Timothy Weisser said he’s fully vaccinated, however he expressed that he is open to the idea of the pill treatment if possible.

“I’m kinda looking forward to it, because I know it was concerned with certain people that have a fear of needles and shots who are being prevented from getting the COVID-19 vaccine,” Weisser said.

He further expressed that he hopes the pill would make individuals yield to more preventive measures provided.

Merck announced that the U.S. government will purchase approximately 1.7 million doses of molnupiravir as soon as the new pill receives approval or Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA.

It took the FDA roughly nine months to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, according to the FDA website

“In addition to this agreement with the U.S. government, we are actively engaged in numerous efforts to make molnupiravir available globally to fulfill Merck’s commitment to widespread access,” stated Robert Davis, chief executive officer and president of Merck, in the announcement.

In the hopes of getting the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization to approve of the pill, the company also expects to produce 10 million courses of treatment by the end of 2021, with more doses anticipated in 2022 as they have been producing molnupiravir “at risk,” without being approved yet, according to the website. According to Merck, if approved, the pill would be the first antiviral pill for treating COVID-19.

White House Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci mentioned in a CNBC press conference that the public should give the FDA time to carefully go over the data submitted by Merck as they are working hard on the approval and to make the kind of determinations for Emergency Use Authorizations.

“I don’t want to get ahead of them. I can’t predict when it will be, but I can tell you one thing. They will do it as quickly as they possibly can,” Fauci said.

As of Oct. 2, about 5.2 million Virginians have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Of these people, 0.7% have developed COVID-19, 0.025% have been hospitalized and 0.0074% have died.

Regardless of vaccination status, Fauci explained that the pill should be given to individuals who generally are infected with COVID-19.

Despite the results of the new pill which are “quite good,” it shouldn’t reduce the need for vaccination as no drug is 100% effective, Fauci said. He expressed that it is better to not be infected rather than getting infected and depending on a drug for protection against “advanced diseases.”

University students are required to get the COVID-19 vaccine unless they have health or religious exemptions, according to a university announcement. Of the student population, 95% are fully vaccinated, while 96.3% of employees are fully vaccinated, according to VCU’s vaccination dashboard

Some students, 4%, have been exempted from getting the vaccine because of health or religious reasons. Of employees, 2.6% have submitted exemption requests and 1.1% are in the process of becoming fully vaccinated.

COVID-19 cases are decreasing at VCU, with the total number of cases declining from 482 cases in May to 249 in October of this year, according to the university’s COVID-19 cases dashboard.

“The best way to avoid getting into a hospital is to not get infected. The best way to not get infected is to get vaccinated,” Fauci said.

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