The global death toll from Covid-19 is said to now have crossed 5 million even as the pandemic’s end is yet to appear within sight. Vaccines for now are being seen as the best bet against Covid-19 but new variants are seen as being able to escape some of the protection they offer, giving rise to ‘breakthrough cases’. It would help, therefore, if there was a medicine available that could reliably promise a cure for those who contract the disease, either while they wait to get jabbed or after receiving their full dose of vaccination. An antiviral developed by pharma major Merck has delivered positive results in clinical trials. Here’s what you need to know.
What Is The Merck Pill?
Known as molnupiravir, Merck said that if approved by regulators, it will become the first pill available for Covid-19 treatment that a patient can take orally. Merck, which has partnered the US-based Ridgeback Biotherapeutics for the development of the drug, said that Phase-3 trials showed that it “significantly reduced the risk of hospitalisation or death… in at risk, non-hospitalised adult patients with mild-to-moderate Covid-19".
Preliminary results from the trial involving 775 people showed that patients who received the drug “within five days of Covid-19 symptoms had about half the rate of hospitalisation and death as those who received a dummy pill".
Giving details of the trial outcomes, the company said that 7.3 per cent of patients who received molnupiravir were either hospitalised or died through Day 29… compared with 14.1 per cent of placebo-treated patients", adding that “no deaths were reported in patients who received molnupiravir, as compared to 8 deaths in patients who received placebo".
How Does It Work?
Molnupiravir works by introducing errors in the mechanism, involving RNA replication, by which the virus makes copies of itself once it has infected an individual. By tricking the virus into incorporating its material into copies of its RNA, the drug causes mutations to accumulate, eventually render it unable to reproduce.
Merck said that pre-clinical and clinical data have shown molnupiravir to be active against the most common Sars-CoV-2 variants like Delta, which was first identified in India, Mu and Gamma.
How Will It Help?
All the major therapies so far being used to cure Covid-19 are either ones that need to be delivered as an intravenous dip or by way of an injection. Which means that a patient has to rely on medical professionals for receiving the treatment. The USP of molnupiravir is that it can be orally administered.
“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,” said Wendy Holman, CEO of Ridgeback Biotherapeutics.
Merck said that all participants enrolled in the trials “had laboratory-confirmed mild-to-moderate Covid-19" and also reported at least one risk factor for the disease, adding that molnupiravir “reduced the risk of hospitalisation and/or death across all key subgroups".
Significantly, the company also said that the drug is being explored for likely ability to prevent “the spread of Covid-19 within households".
When Will The Drug Be Available?
Merck said that it has been “producing molnupiravir at risk" and expects to have 10 million courses of treatment by the end of 2021. It has already entered into a procurement agreement with the US government to supply about 1.7 million courses of the tablet following an emergency approval from that country’s drugs regulator.
Patients are required to take four pills of molnupiravir twice a day for five days.
The company, which is also the maker of ivermectin, a drug used to cure parasitic infections that was briefly adopted as a Covid-19 medication before being discontinued, added that it has entered into supply and purchase agreements for molnupiravir with other governments worldwide, pending regulatory authorisation.
While details were not immediately available as to pricing, Merck said it “plans to implement a tiered pricing approach based on World Bank country income criteria to reflect countries’ relative ability to finance their health response to the pandemic". It also said that to ensure all parts of the world have access to the medicine, it has entered into licensing agreements for with generic drug manufacturers.