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Israel said working to get supply of breakthrough Merck COVID-19 antiviral pill

Bennett reportedly makes announcement to coronavirus cabinet; if cleared, molnupiravir would be 1st pill shown to treat coronavirus patients, a potentially major advance

This undated image provided by Merck & Co. shows its new antiviral medication (Merck & Co. via AP)
This undated image provided by Merck & Co. shows its new antiviral medication (Merck & Co. via AP)

Israel is reportedly in talks with Merck over the potential supply of its experimental COVID-19 pill, which reduces hospitalizations and deaths by half.

The government has asked the pharmaceutical giant to supply “a suitable amount” of the drug if the pill is approved by regulators abroad, Channel 13 news reported Tuesday.

If authorized, it would be the first pill shown to treat COVID-19.

According to the report, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett mentioned the potential breakthrough drug during Sunday’s meeting of the coronavirus cabinet, and said that although it was expensive, with the regimen costing around $800 per patient, Israel would work to secure supplies if its use was authorized.

Merck has said it can produce pills for 10 million patients by the end of the year and has contracts with governments worldwide.

The US government has committed to purchasing enough pills to treat 1.7 million people, assuming the US Food and Drug Administration authorizes the drug.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on October 5, 2021. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool/Flash90)

Merck said last week that it will soon ask health officials in the US and around the world to authorize the pill’s use. A decision from the FDA could come within weeks after that, and the drug, if authorized, could be distributed quickly soon afterward.

All other COVID-19 treatments now authorized by the US require an IV or injection. A pill taken at home, by contrast, would ease pressure on hospitals and could also help curb outbreaks in poorer and more remote corners of the world that don’t have access to the more expensive infusion therapies.

Merck and its partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics said early results showed patients who received the drug, molnupiravir, within five days of COVID-19 symptoms had about half the rate of hospitalization and death as those who received a dummy pill.

The study tracked 775 adults with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 who were considered high risk for severe disease because of health problems such as obesity, diabetes or heart disease. The results have not been reviewed by outside experts, the usual procedure for vetting new medical research.

Doctor examines a patient using an endoscope in the COVID-19 intensive care unit (ICU) at the United Memorial Medical Center on December 29, 2020 in Houston, Texas. (Go Nakamura/Getty Images/AFP)

Among patients taking molnupiravir, 7.3 percent were either hospitalized or died at the end of 30 days, compared with 14.1% of those getting the dummy pill. After that time period, there were no deaths among those who received the drug, compared with eight in the placebo group, according to Merck.

The results were so strong that an independent group of medical experts monitoring the trial recommended stopping it early.

Even with the news of a potentially effective new treatment, experts stressed the importance of vaccines for controlling the pandemic, given that they help prevent transmission and also reduce the severity of illness in those who do get infected.

Merck only studied its drug in people who were not vaccinated. But FDA regulators may consider authorizing it for broader use in vaccinated patients who get breakthrough COVID-19 symptoms.

Patients take four pills of molnupiravir twice a day for five days. Side effects were reported by both groups in the Merck trial, but they were slightly more common among those who received a dummy pill. The company did not specify the problems.

Earlier study results showed the drug did not benefit patients who were already hospitalized with severe disease. That’s not surprising, given that antiviral drugs are most effective when used before the virus ramps up in the body.

Rubber stoppers are placed onto filled vials of the drug remdesivir at a Gilead manufacturing site in the United States, March 2020. (Gilead Sciences via AP)

The US has approved one antiviral drug, remdesivir, for COVID-19, and allowed emergency use of three antibody therapies that help the immune system fight the virus. But all the drugs are expensive and have to be given by IV or injection at hospitals or clinics, and supplies have been stretched by the latest surge of the Delta variant.

The antibody drugs have been shown to reduce hospitalization and death by roughly 70% when given to high-risk patients, roughly 20 percentage points more than Merck’s pill. But experts cautioned against comparing results from the two, given the preliminary nature of Merck’s data.

Several other companies, including Pfizer and Roche, are studying similar drugs and could report results in the coming weeks and months.

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