Shares of US science giant Merck rose more than 10% this afternoon after the company revealed that a new Covid-19 pill has exceeded all expectations.
As a result, the vaccine giants across the board are down, Pfizer by nearly 2%, Moderna by 4.7% and Novavax by 7.5%. Businesses stand to lose billions if government health policies switch to oral antiviral treatments like Merck.
Its new experimental Covid-19 pill has halved hospital stays and deaths, the company has confirmed.
In fact, an independent group of medical experts who oversaw the trial recommended stopping it early because the intermediate results were so strong, exceeding all expectations.
The company said today that it will soon ask health authorities around the world to authorize its use.
If approved, Merck’s drug would be the first pill to treat Covid-19, a potentially major breakthrough in efforts to fight the pandemic.
Merck and its partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics said initial results showed that patients who received the drug, called molnupiravir, within five days of showing symptoms of Covid-19 had about half the rate of hospital stays and more deaths than patients who received a dummy pill.
The study followed 775 adults with mild to moderate Covid-19 who were considered to be at higher risk of serious illness due to health conditions such as obesity, diabetes or heart disease.
Of the patients taking molnupiravir, 7.3% were either hospitalized or died within 30 days, compared with 14.1% of those receiving the dummy pill.
There were no deaths in the drug group after this period, compared with eight deaths in the placebo group, according to Merck.
The results have been published by the company and have not been peer reviewed. Merck said he plans to present them at a future medical meeting.
Very promising results
An independent group of medical experts overseeing the trial recommended stopping it early because the intermediate results were so strong.
“It went beyond what I thought the drug might be able to do in this clinical trial,” said Dr. Dean Li, vice president of research at Merck.
When you see a 50% reduction in hospitalizations or deaths, it has a substantial clinical impact.
Side effects were reported by both groups in the Merck trial, but were slightly more common in the dummy pill group. The company did not specify the problems.
The results of previous studies have shown that the drug did not benefit patients already hospitalized with serious illness.
Health experts, including U.S. infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci, have long called for a convenient pill that patients could take when symptoms of Covid-19 first appear. These drugs are considered essential for controlling future waves of infection and reducing the impact of the pandemic.
The Merck pill works by interfering with an enzyme that the coronavirus uses to copy its genetic code and reproduce itself. It has shown similar activity against other viruses.
Several other companies, including Pfizer and Roche, are studying similar drugs that may yield results in the weeks and months to come. German company claims experimental pill reduces worst effects of Covid-19.