The drug-maker said it will soon ask health officials in the United States and around the world to approve the pill for the treatment of coronavirus.
If cleared, the drug, called molnupiravir, would be the first pill approved for the treatment of COVID-19. All other approved treatments must be injected or given through IV by healthcare workers. A pill can be taken at home and is easier to send around the world.
Dr. William Schaffner is an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University who was not involved in the research. He said such a pill would provide treatment to "many more people, much more quickly and, we trust, much less expensively." And Dr. Anthony Fauci has also said a pill that can be taken at home as soon as people feel sick will help control the virus.
Merck and its partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics studied 775 people with mild to moderate symptoms of COVID-19 in the U.S., Europe, Latin America and Africa. The patients also had existing health problems that increased their risk for severe disease.
Patients who received the experimental pill within five days of COVID-19 symptoms had about half the rate of hospitalization and death as those who received a placebo. A placebo is a pill that has an inactive substance. Merck said only about seven percent of the patients who received the experimental pill went to the hospital or died after 30 days compared to 14 percent who received a placebo.
Patients in the Merck study were not vaccinated for COVID-19. Merck said there were some side effects among both groups but did not describe them. The drug-maker said its pill works by preventing the virus from easily reproducing itself. But earlier studies showed the drug did not help people who were already very sick.
A group of independent experts following the trial advised Merck to stop it early because the pill seemed to be working so well. Merck said it will soon send the trial results to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for review.
Dr. Dean Li is the vice president of Merck Research Laboratories. He said: "It exceeded what I thought the drug might be able to do in this clinical trial." Li noted that a 50 percent reduction in hospitalization or death is "a substantial clinical impact."
Merck said it can produce 10 million treatments by the end of the year. The U.S. already plans to buy nearly 2 million treatments if it is approved by the FDA.
Pfizer and Roche, two other drug companies, are working on similar products and may have results from their drug trials soon.
I'm Dan Friedell.