Dr. Anthony Fauci praised an experimental antiviral pill that its manufacturer said can reduce COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths by 50% in people recently infected with the coronavirus.
The White House chief medical adviser said on Sunday that the preliminary study results released over the weekend for drugmaker Merck’s COVID-19 pill are “really quite impressive.”
“You have now a small molecule, a drug that can be given orally. And the results of the trial that were just announced yesterday and the day before are really quite impressive. I mean, if you do a statistical significant analysis on it, it’s very, very significant, cutting the deaths and hospitalization by 50%,” Fauci told Jonathan Karl on ABC’s “This Week.”
“Importantly, in the placebo versus the drug group ― in the drug group, there were zero deaths. In the placebo group, there were eight deaths. ... No matter how you slice that, that’s impressive. So we’re really looking forward to the implementation of this.”
Merck is collaborating with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics on the development of the antiviral pill, called molnupiravir. It works by interfering with the coronavirus’s ability to copy its genetic code and reproduce itself. Patients with mild to moderate COVID-19 who were considered higher risk for severe disease took the pill twice a day for five days to complete a course of treatment. An independent group of medical experts monitoring the trial recommended stopping early because the interim results were so strong.
The results have not been peer reviewed by outside experts, but Merck officials said they plan to submit the data for review by the Food and Drug Administration in the coming days. If approved, the U.S. government has committed to purchasing 1.7 million doses of molnupiravir, according to The Associated Press.
As effective as Merck’s drug may be, Fauci stressed that it is in no way a replacement for the COVID-19 vaccine, which is the most effective way for people infected with the disease to prevent hospitalization and death.
“That’s such a false narrative, that someone says, ‘Well, now you have a drug,’” he told Karl. “Remember, the easiest way to stay out of the hospital and not die is don’t get infected. I mean, this idea about, ‘We have a drug, don’t get vaccinated’ just doesn’t make any sense.”
The FDA has approved one antiviral drug, remdesivir, specifically for COVID-19, and has given emergency use authorization to three antibody therapies that help the immune system fight the virus. But all of those drugs are given by IV or injection at hospitals or medical clinics, and supplies are stretching thin.
Health experts like Fauci have long called for a more convenient pill that patients could take when first starting to experience COVID-19 symptoms, similar to how the standard flu medication Tamiflu helps fight influenza. If approved, molnupiravir would be the first pill shown to treat COVID-19 in the U.S. as cases fall, but the death toll reaches 700,000.