Solutions: What to know about new COVID pill, molnupiravir

Vaccines remain the primary tool against the virus, experts say.

The world could soon be armed with another tool to fight the coronavirus pandemic: a twice-daily pill that has been shown to reduce the risk of hospitalization and death among people infected with the coronavirus.

The drug, molnupiravir, offers another tool alongside vaccines for countries to manage the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s what you need to know about it:

What is molnupiravir?

Molnupiravir is an antiviral pill by pharmaceutical giant Merck that aims to prevent mild to moderate cases of COVID-19 from becoming severe cases that result in hospitalization or death. People who have COVID-19 take the drug twice a day for five days, starting within five days of the onset of symptoms.

It was shown in an international clinical trial of 775 high-risk, unvaccinated people to cut the risk of hospitalization and death in half (the participants had at least one risk factor for severe COVID-19, such as obesity or advanced age). The treatment was also shown in a separate trial to accelerate the clearance of infectious virus from the nose and throat, indicating that it may also help reduce the spread of the virus.

Combined ShapeCaption
Brian Pietsch

Credit: contributed

Brian Pietsch

Credit: contributed

Combined ShapeCaption
Brian Pietsch

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Still, medical experts warn that vaccines remain the primary tool against the coronavirus, as it is better to prevent people from getting the virus than to treat it after infection.

When will molnupiravir become available?

Merck has submitted data to the Food and Drug Administration following the success of its trial — which was ended early because of its positive results — seeking emergency use authorization for molnupiravir.

Merck and its partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics said in a news release that, in addition to submitting their FDA application, they plan to apply for emergency use or marketing authorization in other countries “in the coming months.” Ahead of a decision by U.S. regulators, the companies have already started producing the pill, and have agreed to sell courses of the treatment to the United States and other countries if they get the green light.

An FDA advisory committee will meet Nov. 30 to discuss the emergency use authorization request, setting a timeline that could have the drug available by the end of the year.

How is molnupiravir different from other COVID-19 drugs?

Molnupiravir stands out from other COVID-19 treatments for its ease of use. The use of monoclonal antibodies, a treatment that is infused or injected, did not take off widely in the United States, as medical experts say that the treatment is costly and difficult to deliver. In contrast, molnupiravir can be prescribed like other pills, taken at home and stored easily.

Where will molnupiravir be used?

The United States, with millions of people still unvaccinated, has made an advance purchase of $1.2 billion worth of molnupiravir — about 1.7 million treatments. Australia, Singapore and South Korea have also made purchase agreements.

The simple process to deliver, store and administer the drug could prove particularly useful in poorer nations. Vaccine distribution efforts in countries that lacked a robust medical infrastructure struggled to get shots in arms, even if they had an adequate supply, as the vaccine doses require extremely cold refrigeration and people trained to administer the shots.

Merck licensed the drug to five generic drugmakers in India to accelerate its availability in low- and middle-income countries.

Still, some experts and public health organizations have raised concerns that without a clearly articulated plan to supply countries or to negotiate contracts, global efforts to secure the drug for poorer countries could run into the same challenges Covax, the World Health Organization-backed initiative to distribute vaccine doses equitably, ran into in distributing vaccines.

Each week, as part of our solutions-oriented focus, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution partners with the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about social issues. This week’s content comes from other sources.