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Hoosier expert: Merck’s COVID-19 pill could be pandemic game-changer

If approved, it would be the first pill to help treat COVID-19 and would be available later this year.

INDIANAPOLIS — Merck is asking the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization for a pill to treat COVID-19.

Experts say if approved, the pill could be another tool in the toolbox, with the best tool still being the vaccine.  

Newly-released data from drugmaker Merck shows the antiviral drug can reduce severe illness in COVID-19 patients. When the pill was taken twice a day for five days, it cut hospitalizations and deaths in half for those with early symptoms. 

If approved, it would be the first pill to help treat COVID-19 and would be available later this year.  

“The idea that we would be treating high-risk adults in the early phase of the disease and preventing them from experiencing the serious consequences or serious symptoms that result in hospitalizations or other negative outcomes. That really is the game-changer here,” said Dr. Kara Cecil, assistant professor of public health at the University of Indianapolis.  

Cecil said the pill is similar to the antiviral drug Tamiflu, which is used to treat seasonal influenza.   

“If you come down with the flu, you take a test and you have a prescription for Tamiflu quickly and it reduces the severity of disease and the length of symptoms,” Cecil said.  

Since the treatment can be done at home, it can also reduce the number of hospital beds used. Right now, the only COVID-19 treatments available require an IV or injection.  

“It would be done at home. It would not be done in a clinical care facility, which frees up those resources to treat other patients. That’s really important,” Cecil said.  

RELATED: Merck asks US FDA to authorize promising anti-COVID pill

The pill is also much more affordable compared to other available treatments. The price of the antiviral medication is about one-third of the cost of monoclonal antibody treatment.

“The course of treatment for the antiviral pill is about $700, which does seem like a big price tag, and it is, but when you compare it to our other treatment options, it’s a significant cost savings,” Cecil said.  

Studies show the pill is effective against all the variants. Right now, the government is planning to buy 1.7 million doses of the new drug.  

Its use would start five days after symptoms are seen for best results. 

Several other companies, like Pfizer and Indy-based Roche, are studying similar drugs. We can expect to see results from those in the coming weeks. 

AstraZeneca's also seeking FDA approval for an antibody drug that's supposed to offer months of protection for people with immune disorders.

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