Pill used to treat COVID-19 ideal for moderate cases; would likely cut down on “long haul syndrome”

Merck is seeking approval for their new COVID-19 medication. (WHSV File)
Merck is seeking approval for their new COVID-19 medication. (WHSV File)(WHSV)
Published: Oct. 1, 2021 at 3:46 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA COUNTY, Va. (WHSV) - Pharmaceutical company Merck has announced in a press release that its experimental COVID-19 pill reduced hospitalizations and deaths by half in people recently infected with the coronavirus.

If approved, the drug would be the first pill shown to treat COVID-19. Dr. Bill Petri, Infectious Disease Professor at the University of Virginia, says that’s a big step in coronavirus therapy.

“I could envision, in the future, we’ll have like one pill that combines what Merck is doing with what Pfizer is doing and that’s exactly how we’re able to cure Hepatitis C virus today for example,” Petri said.

Pfizer also announced they’re working on a protease inhibiter, which will also be a pill that you can take at home for COVID-19.

Merck reported “a randomized clinical trial where they gave this pill to people with moderate COVID-19, so not bad enough for them to be in the hospital, but bad enough where they felt ill,” Petri said.

Trial participants took eight treatment pills per day, and Merck reports the results were life-saving.

“What they found was a substantial reduction in mortality, so it saved lives,” Petri said. “People in the control group who did not receive the medicine had a mortality rate of 15%, whereas people on the Merck drug, their mortality was about 7%.”

Petri says the medicine would be best for someone with moderate, not severe, COVID symptoms.

“By the time you are so ill that you need to come into the hospital, what’s going on is more that your immune system is not working properly,” Petri said.

He says the medicine would be prescribed to you by a doctor, and you’d be able to get it at a pharmacy.

“In most cases, by the time you’re in the hospital, this medicine might have less of an impact, and really its wonderful potential role is for the treatment when you’re at home and you get this infection,” Petri said.

The announcement is great news, Petri says, because there aren’t many treatment options for COVID right now.

“There’s nothing we can offer you other than monoclonal antibody injection to try to prevent the disease from getting worse to bring you into the hospital,” Petri said. “Antibodies are very affective and FDA approved; however, that requires getting an injection of antibodies. It’s more difficult than a pill, so this is very, very appealing.”

Although the medicine will be very important, Petri says he doesn’t think it will end the pandemic.

“I don’t anticipate that the ability to treat the infection after it’s happened is going to get us out of the pandemic, but I think it’s going to be just wonderful the ability to be able to treat people while they’re at home. If you can keep the virus from replicating, you’ll prevent a lot of the damage the immune system causes that we think is involved in this ‘long haul’ syndrome,” Petri said.

Petri says he is optimistic, but the medicine will have to be granted FDA approval before it can be used.

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