First ‘pill for Covid-19’ one step closer to market

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, we have been working not only on vaccines to protect against severity and death from the disease, but also on drugs to help treat it during.

Today we learn that the first such drug has successfully completed the human testing phase and will await Food and Drug Administration certification after the appropriate paperwork is filed. This one is the work of the pharmaceutical company Merck and, as assured by its authors, shows a 50% effectiveness in preventing hospitalization and death due to Covid-19, if given within the first 5 days of the onset of symptoms. The drug is called molnupiravir and work on it, as with vaccines, has been going on for many years – it was supposed to be another tool to fight RNA viruses, and in this particular case, seasonal flu. At the end of 2019, the drug was ready for the first phase of human testing just for influenza, but with the advent of SARS-CoV-2, researchers decided to see if they could use their achievement to combat that particular virus.

By October 2020, the drug was already on trial in 20 different countries and showing very promising results, and today we have the opportunity to learn the results of the study on the first 775 patients recruited for the study. The drug appeared to reduce the risk of hospitalization and death from Covid-19 by 50% – only 28 of 385 patients taking molnupiravir had to undergo hospitalization compared to 53 of 377 patients in the placebo group. Even more significantly, none of the patients taking the drug died from the infection, compared with 8 deaths in the placebo group.

As Simon Clarke, a cell microbiologist at the University of Reading, points out, these results are extremely promising, but before any action is taken on the topic of bringing the drug to market, we need to know the full documentation of the study. Because while Merck reports that people treated with molnupiravir showed no side effects, the scientist says we need to see exactly how the drug affects different people: – This drug works by forcing the machinery that reproduces Covid-19 genetic material to make mistakes, stopping it from multiplying effectively. This mode of action can cause problems with our own cells, and while data suggest that the drug is well tolerated, we still don’t have complete data on side effects.

However, the corporation is confident in the drug’s efficacy and safety, so it has applied for an emergency license for the drug, and the U.S. government has already ordered 1.7 million doses. Unfortunately, it is not a cheap treatment, as the 5-day therapy is currently said to cost approx. The manufacturer assures, however, that they will do their best to make the drug available also in low-income countries. He points out, however, that an efficient testing system is necessary for the drug to work effectively, as it must be administered within the first 5 days of symptom onset, otherwise its use will not make much sense.

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