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Pharmaceutical company Merck & Co (MRK.N) has invented an experimental antiviral pill for COVID-19. Can it alleviate the potential threats of the disease?

As people clamour for COVID-19 cure, scientists and researchers have dedicated their time and effort to the creation of injectable vaccines that are now being rolled out across the globe. But not all are big fans of COVID-19 jabs. Moreover, there are countries like the Philippines where vaccine supplies are scarce

Recently, New Jersey-based pharmaceutical company Merck & Co (MRK.N) and partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics developed an experimental antiviral pill called Molnupiravir.

According to experts, taking four pills twice a day for five succeeding days can potentially decrease the number of hospitalisation or death after contracting the virus. They also suggested that the oral drug could be a "potential breakthrough" that can finally put an end to the pandemic. 

See also: PH COVID-19 Vaccination Simplified: Timeline, Status, And More

What is Merck's COVID-19 Pill? 

The drug, Molnupiravir, is the world's first oral antiviral found to be effective against COVID-19, like most vaccines, the pill works by inhibiting the replication of the coronavirus inside our bodies.

An interim analysis of a phase three study has found that only 7.3 per cent of patients treated with Molnupiravir were hospitalised within 29 days; meanwhile, no deaths were reported in patients who were given the pill within the 29-day period. For patients who only received placebo pills, 14.1 per cent were sent to the hospital or succumbed to the disease by day 29. 

“The news of the efficacy of this particular antiviral is obviously very good news,” White House chief medical advisor Dr Anthony Fauci said in a US press conference. “The company, when they briefed us last night, had mentioned that they will be submitting their data to the FDA imminently. The FDA will look at the data and in their usual, very efficient and effective way, will examine the data as quickly as they possibly can, and then it will be taken from there."

Is the PH open to using Merck's Pill?

While the Philippines did not officially participate in any of the Merck pills' clinical trials, the government said it is open to using investigational drugs, so long as there is evidence to prove its safety and efficacy.

"That would be a big help once findings show that it is effective for the patients," Department of Health (DOH) Undersecretary Maria Rosario said in a press briefing

The official stressed that the COVID-19 Living Clinical Practice Guidelines (CPG) task force, led by health experts and key public stakeholders, regularly studies potential COVID-19 drugs to make sure the Philippines and manufacturers could immediately negotiate and bag the pills once official results are out.

"As for Molnupiravir, this drug is still on trial stages so we will wait once the official results have been published)," Vergeire explained.

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Will it be sold over the counter?

According to Ridgeback Biotherapeutics CEO Wendy Holman, antiviral drugs like the Molnupiravir are safe to take home. With the virus continuing to circulate widely, and because therapeutic options currently available are infused and/or require access to a healthcare facility, antiviral treatments that can be taken at home to keep people with COVID-19 out of the hospital are critically needed," Holman said in the company's official statement

"We are very encouraged by the results from the interim analysis and hope Molnupiravir if authorized for use, can make a profound impact in controlling the pandemic. Our partnership with Merck is critical to ensuring rapid global access if this medicine is approved, and we appreciate the collaborative effort to reach this important stage of development," the official added.

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Can it be used as a substitute for COVID-19 vaccines? 

Unlike vaccines which are used as preventive medicines against COVID-19, Molnupiravir is intended to be taken soon after a patient develops mild to moderate symptoms of the disease. 

Researchers have yet to prove whether these oral drugs are more effective than vaccines but its clinical trials had unvaccinated patients as subjects. Every participant also had at least one underlying factor that put them at greater risk of developing a more severe case of the virus. The most common risk factors included obesity, old age (being over 60), diabetes and heart disorders. “It exceeded what I thought the drug might be able to do in this clinical trial,” said Dr Dean Li, vice president of Merck Research Laboratories. “When you see a 50 per cent reduction in hospitalisation or death, that’s a substantial clinical impact.”

According to reports, the company seeks to produce at least 10 million courses of treatment by the end of the year. The US government has already locked their purchase of 1.7 million drug courses. Merck earlier implied that it would license the production of Molnupiravir to established generic drug manufacturers “to accelerate availability” of the pill in more than 100 low- and middle-income countries.

Today, other trusted drug manufacturing companies like Roche and Pfizer are studying similar drugs and could report results in the coming months. 

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