Pill that treats COVID-19 shows promise in early testing

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A new COVID-19 breakthrough is showing promise – and would be an easy pill to swallow.

More than a year into the pandemic, doctors and patients still have few treatment options.

It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.

“You have cells in a dish that are infected with a virus. And then you have lots and lots and lots and lots of dishes. And all of them are exposed to different drugs. And you just look to see which drugs can stop the virus from replicating and which ones don’t. And usually, that ends up you could start with hundreds of 1000s of drugs, and you end up with like, 10,” said Dr. Timothy Sheahan with the Department of Epidemiology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But Sheahan’s team found what they were looking for: a drug that stopped coronaviruses from replicating.

“It basically had antiviral activity against all coronaviruses that we tested it against.”

It’s called molnupiravir, and it’s earned another new title: the COVID pill.

A study by drugmakers Merck and Ridgeback Bio found that after taking the pill two times a day for five days, tests didn’t find any infectious virus in participants.

“They basically showed that people who are on the antiviral drug, infectious virus disappeared faster from their nose than people who are not on it. So it’s like direct evidence that your antiviral drug is having an antiviral effect – it’s doing its job; it’s making the virus go away,” said Sheahan.

Liz Chandler, pharmacy and clinical specialist for infectious diseases at Lee Health, is encouraged by the findings.

“Especially that this new agent is potentially an oral option.”

Chandler says taking the COVID treatment by mouth is a new and needed option.

“The number of COVID therapeutics that we actually have available currently and are using is really a small handful,” she said.

“It’s something that patients could potentially take at home, as opposed to having to go to an infusion center or going to the hospital for.”

Still, it’s too early to pull out the prescription pad.

“It still needs to undergo larger clinical trials to really determine its place in therapy. Right now, we have some preliminary data about reducing the viral load, for example. But that doesn’t always correlate with how the patients actually do. Does it actually improve their symptoms? Does it actually help prevent progression to hospitalization or even death? Those are a lot of questions that I still have in my mind, and we just don’t have that information yet. So it’s very early on,” said Chandler.

“I think we’re gonna learn a lot more in the next few months about whether or not this is not only effective, but it’s also safe for people to take,” said Sheahan.

Merck hopes to have interim results by the end of March.

The COVID pill is expected to be effective against all coronaviruses, including the different variants.

“We take a drug, and we test it against every coronavirus that we know about. And if it works against all those, it’s likely that it will work against those that might emerge in the future,” said Sheahan. “In the next year or so, we’re going to see probably multiple oral antiviral drugs come out. And so I think we might have not just one option but multiple options.”

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