Merck says its COVID-19 antiviral pill is effective against variants

Merck says its COVID-19 antiviral pill is effective against variants
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Pharmaceutical company Merck on Wednesday said its experimental, antiviral COVID-19 treatment has demonstrated in lab studies to likely be effective against coronavirus variants, including the highly contagious delta strain.

Preliminary data shared with The Hill and presented Wednesday at IDWeek, an annual meeting of infectious disease organizations, showed that the oral drug molnupiravir has shown to be most effective when given to patients early on in their infection.

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Merck, which is currently conducting late-stage trials of the drug, said that because the treatment does not target the spike protein of the virus, which differentiates the COVID-19 variants, the drug should still be able to effectively combat any of the coronavirus strains. 

Molnupiravir, which Merck is developing along with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, has been designed to target an enzyme that allows the virus to make copies of itself, thereby introducing errors to the virus genetic code, according to Reuters

Jay Grobler, head of infectious disease and vaccines at Merck, said at the conference Wednesday, “It’s a really nice observation because it gives us confidence that it will work the same across the variants that are already out there, and potentially against any new variants that may emerge,” Bloomberg reported

The Merck executive added that the latest study is expected to be finished by November, noting that "data could come sooner or later.” 

A Merck spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill, "As emerging variants worsen the COVID-19 pandemic across the globe, we must evaluate potential treatments with these variants in mind."

"These in-vitro data suggest that molnupiravir is effective against SARS-CoV-2 variants, particularly when initiated early in the course of illness," the spokesperson added. "We are hopeful that molnupiravir may play a key role in helping patients and reducing the burden on healthcare systems."

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Merck is just one of multiple pharmaceutical companies conducting research on potential COVID-19 treatments to help combat serious cases of COVID-19. 

Pfizer, which together with BioNTech developed the COVID-19 vaccine that has been fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for people ages 16 and older, announced earlier this month that it had launched a later-stage clinical trial for a pill to potentially treat the virus. 

Swiss multinational health care company Roche has also been conducting studies on similar treatments. 

The Biden administration announced over the summer that it planned to purchase nearly 2 million courses of the molnupiravir drug from Merck, pending FDA authorization or approval. 

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said at the time that it would pay roughly $1.2 million for the drug, which would be administered as a five-day treatment.

Updated Thursday at 10:31 a.m.