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Merck Oral COVID-19 Drug Shows Promise in Early Trials

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Key Takeaways

  • An experimental medication may help speed up COVID-19 in patients with more mild cases of the virus.
  • The medication, called molnupiravir, would be the first oral drug specifically designed to fight COVID-19.
  • Experts say early trial results are promising and could help cut back on the time infected people remain positive for the virus.

Pharmaceutical company Merck announced on March 6, 2021, that its phase 2 clinical trial for an oral medication to fight COVID-19 has promising early findings. Researchers found that the medication, called molnupiravir, helped reduce the viral load in COVID-19 patients.

Merck and partner company Ridgeback Biotherapeutics announced the results of the companies’ phase 2a clinical trial in a press release.

The study enrolled 202 adults who had signs or symptoms of COVID-19 within the past seven days and confirmed that they were infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The researchers then measured the detectable levels of the virus in each patient through nasal swabs, using reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) testing.

Of the 182 participants whose nasal swabs researchers were able to evaluate, 42% showed detectable levels of the virus at the start. After five days, there was a noticeable reduction in positive test results: None of the subjects who had received molnupiravir tested positive, compared to 24% of those who had received the placebo. 

The press release also notes that, of 202 people who were treated, there were no serious side effects linked to the drug. Animal studies have also suggested the mediation is safe, according to Merck.

“We are very pleased to share our initial phase 2 infectivity data at this important conference, which remains at the forefront for critical clinical scientific information in infectious diseases,” Wendy Painter, MD, chief medical officer of Ridgeback Biotherapeutics said in the press release. “At a time where there is unmet need for antiviral treatments against SARS-CoV-2, we are encouraged by these preliminary data.”

William Fischer, MD, lead investigator of the study and an associate professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine also called the findings “promising.”

What This Means For You

If more clinical trials show molnupiravir is an effective treatment for COVID-19, it would become the first oral medication specifically designed to fight the virus. As of now, though, patients with more mild cases of the virus can use over-the-counter medications, like pain killers and fever reducers, to treat symptoms.

What Is Molnupiravir?

Molnupiravir is a new oral drug that works by stopping the replication of multiple RNA viruses, including SARS-CoV-2. Researchers are investigating the drug as a potential new treatment for COVID-19. 

Previous animal research on the drug found that it was able to suppress SARS-CoV-2 within 24 hours. Researchers are hopeful the drug will reduce the length of time infected people remain positive for the virus.

Could Be a COVID-19 First

Currently, there is no oral, outpatient medication to treat people with COVID-19. If molnupiravir proves effective, it could be a game-changer.

“This is very intriguing,” Jamie Alan, PhD, assistant professor of pharmacology at Michigan State University, tells Verywell. Alan says the reduction in positive viral cultures is “great” but points out that it’s unclear at this point what that will translate to in the real world. “Whether this will decrease deaths or disease severity would really be the true measures of success,” she says.

Richard Watkins, MD, an infectious disease physician and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, agrees, calling the results “interesting.”

“I hope the upcoming trials, which will include more patients, will also show beneficial effects,” he tells Verywell.

An effective, easy-to-use medication to treat COVID-19 is important, Watkins says, adding, “it could make it easier to treat people earlier in their illness with an oral drug.”

While the results are preliminary, experts say this is a step in the right direction. “It is exciting to potentially have an oral antiviral agent with activity against SARS-CoV-2,” Watkins says.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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