What if a simple pill could help cure COVID-19?
US pharmaceutical giants Merck and Pfizer have announced encouraging results for oral drugs, while an antidepressant has also shown promise in what could open a new chapter in the fight against the pandemic.
What are these treatments?
These are pills to be taken by mouth as soon as the first symptoms of COVID-19 appear, to avoid severe forms of the disease, and therefore hospitalization.
This form of treatment has been sought after since the start of the global health crisis.
After months of research, Merck and Pfizer claim to have achieved this elusive goal.
In early October, Merck announced it was seeking US approval for its molnupiravir pill, and Pfizer followed suit on Friday with paxlovid.
They are both antivirals that work by reducing the ability of the virus to replicate, thus slowing the disease.
Both companies say clinical trials have shown a strong reduction in the risk of hospitalization.
Those who took molnupiravir saw this risk decrease by 50% and those who took paxlovid by almost 90%, although direct comparisons of these effectiveness rates should be avoided due to different study protocols.
An antidepressant already available to the public, fluvoxamine, has also shown encouraging results in preventing severe forms of COVID-19, according to a study published in October by Brazilian researchers in The Lancet Global Health newspaper.
Why are they important?
If the effectiveness of these drugs is confirmed, it will be a major breakthrough in the fight against COVID-19.
They would complement vaccines to strengthen the global therapeutic arsenal against the virus.
Treatments already exist, most often in the form of synthetic antibodies.
But these drugs, which usually target those who already have severe forms of the disease, are injected and therefore more difficult to administer.
A pill can be quickly prescribed to a patient who can then easily take it at home.
The Merck and Pfizer treatments, which so far have not shown many side effects, would involve taking around 10 doses over five days.
“The success of these antivirals potentially marks a new era in our ability to prevent the serious consequences of SARS-CoV2 infection,” British virologist Stephen Griffin told the Science Media Center.
It has so far been difficult to properly assess Merck and Pfizer’s treatments as the two groups have only published statements and have not made data from their clinical trials available.
French infectious disease specialist Karine Lacombe warned in September that these types of announcements should be treated with “caution” until studies can be reviewed.
She stressed that these treatments represent a “potentially huge” market for pharmaceutical groups.
However, there is some evidence that Merck and Pfizer are not making empty promises.
On the one hand, they both stopped their clinical trials earlier than expected because the results were so strong, with the agreement of independent oversight committees.
With regard to fluvoxamine, the data are available but are not exempt from criticism.
Several researchers have complained that the authors did not limit themselves to assessing the frequency of hospitalizations, but also to assess the frequency of extended stays in the emergency room.
This, they say, complicated the interpretation of the data.
When? And how much?
Merck’s molnupiravir has already been approved in the UK where health authorities on Thursday gave the green light for its use in patients at risk of developing a severe form of the disease, such as the elderly, the obese or those suffering of diabetes.
US and EU health authorities are also urgently reviewing the drug.
The European Medicines Agency on Thursday promised to “speed up” the procedures, without giving a firm date.
Several countries have already ordered stocks of molnupiravir, such as the United States, with 1.7 million courses of the drug.
The American prescription gives an idea of the high price of the drug.
It’s $ 1.2 billion, which works out to about $ 700 for a five-day course.
As for Pfizer, although it has not set a price for paxlovid, it has promised that it will be “affordable” and subject to a tiered pricing approach based on countries’ income level.
European Medicines Agency begins review of Merck’s oral COVID drug
© 2021 AFP
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