Merck pill could be much-needed weapon against COVID effects, KC doctors say

Tracking Coronavirus

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — A new pill regimen developed by Merck Pharmaceuticals to prevent severe disease in people with COVID-19 is being considered for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  

Drug trials were performed on unvaccinated people and show the five-pill regimen prevents death in 50% of the people who contract the virus.

If approved, this new pill to treat COVID-19 at home is a welcome and much-needed weapon in the ongoing war against COVID-19.

“I think that’s a really big deal. It feels a little bit like Tamiflu for influenza,” said Dr. Steven Stites, medical director at the University of Kansas Health System. “A 50% reduction in hospitalizations and death is a big thing.”

In its drug trial, the anti-viral pill reduced symptoms of COVID-19 and sped up recovery from the virus in people with mild to moderate symptoms, at risk for hospitalization.  

“The most important thing is its ease of application,” said virologist Dr. Faris Farassati, who heads up the Midwest Veterans’ Biomedical Research Foundation. “How easy it would be to apply it, to give it to a vast number of people. They don’t need to come to the hospital.”

Current COVID-19 treatments are done through infusions in a medical or hospital setting, tying up resources.

Farassati explained that the anti-viral pill regimen works by essentially fooling the COVID-19 virus. The medication gets into infected cells and changes the virus in a way that prevents it from replicating.

“So it’s like you are feeding virus bad food that eventually kills it,” Farassati said.

Farassati warned that, in the history of medicine, anti-viral drugs have never been as successful in preventing harm compared to vaccination. It’s a completely different strategy.

“Even if you have a perfect insurance plan on your car, you don’t want to get to an accident,” Farassati said. “And I propose that as the reason to get vaccinated ahead of everything else. If something happens, this medicine is available, but vaccinations are first.”  

The Merck anti-viral regimen was tested on unvaccinated people with low to no side effects, but it’s not safe for everyone — pregnant mom’s included because the chance for birth defects is extremely high.

“We’ve heard it repeatedly. Pregnant moms have some of the worst outcomes around COVID-19,” Stites said. “So once again, another reason to get vaccinated if you’re pregnant or thinking about being pregnant.”

The FDA is expected to grant emergency use for the Merck anti-viral regimen in a few weeks.

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