Merck antiviral pill could offer treatment for COVID-19 patients

The pill, which is seeking emergency use authorization, could lessen the severity of the virus for patients with mild or moderate symptoms.
Published: Oct. 14, 2021 at 5:15 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 14, 2021 at 6:18 PM CDT
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FITCHBURG, Wis. (WMTV) - Drugmaker Merck is currently seeking emergency use authorization from the FDA for a new pill it claims can help treat patients with COVID-19.

According to Merck’s website, a study of the pill showed it “significantly reduced the risk of hospitalization or death” in adult patients with mild to moderate COVID-19.

The idea is that patients with mild/moderate symptoms could potentially be prescribed this pill by their doctors, pick it up at a pharmacy and take the course of treatment at home.

While this antiviral pill may be a new tool in the fight against COVID-19, the science behind it is not new.

“Whether it’s monoclonal antibodies or an antiviral medicine or the vaccines, these are all not reinventing the wheel situations, these are using wheels that we have, it’s just putting a different hub cap on them,” said Dr. William Hartman, principal investigator of the UW Moderna pediatric COVID-19 vaccine trial.

“It really is kind of tweaking what we already know, taking advantage of that science and that knowledge so we can find something that is an effective vaccine or treatment for people who are sick,” Hartman said.

“Many of the things we’re calling new these days have been in the works for decades, they’re just now using them specifically for COVID,” said Thad Schumacher, pharmacist and owner at Fitchburg Family Pharmacy.

Schumacher said an anti-viral medication that may be familiar to people is Tamiflu.

“It tries to shorten the flu by a couple of days. Instead of being sick for a week, the goal is you’d be sick for three or four days,” Schumacher said. “That’s really the goal of the medication, and that’s similar to I believe the way the new drug for Merck will work.”

So what is an antiviral medication?

“The parallel [between Tamiflu and the Merck pill] is that when you use these medicines, they prevent the virus, whether the flu virus or COVID-19, from being able to replicate itself in the person’s body,” Hartman said.

While the Tamiflu and Merck medications are similar, Schumacher says there will be differences in how they function.

“The antiviral medication is basically going in and blocking some step of the process of replication for a virus. Usually the antivirals just get in and are able to stop the replication,” he said. “This new drug by Merck is actually going in and stopping the RNA process. It works a little bit differently, but the end goal is the virus can’t replicate, and that’s what we’re looking for.”

Both Schumacher and Hartman said a pill form of medication may also be more familiar to people. Hartman also said that a pill form could help in areas where access to hospitals and other forms of treatment aren’t as readily available.

Schumacher said this new development, and other potential developments in treating COVID-19 down the road, would be beneficial in protecting people.

“Any advancement we can have in medicine towards keeping people out of the hospital and ultimately keeping them from death is an important step, and we need to take advantage of all those tools,” he said.

Schumacher and Hartman both said the number one way to protect yourself from COVID-19 is to get the vaccine.

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