UK authorises pill to treat COVID-19

·2-min read

Britain has granted a conditional authorisation to Merck's coronavirus antiviral, the first pill shown to successfully treat COVID-19.

It is the first country to OK the treatment, although it was not immediately clear how quickly the pill will be available.

The drug was licensed for adults 18 and older who have tested positive for COVID-19 and have at least one risk factor for developing severe disease.

The drug, known as molnupiravir, is intended to be taken twice a day for five days by people at home with mild to moderate COVID-19.

An antiviral pill that reduces symptoms and speeds recovery could prove groundbreaking, easing caseloads on hospitals and helping to curb outbreaks in poorer countries with fragile health systems.

It would also bolster the two-pronged approach to the pandemic: treatment, by way of medication, and prevention, primarily through vaccinations.

Molnupiravir is also pending review at regulators in the US, Europe and elsewhere.

The US Food and Drug Administration announced last month it would convene a panel of independent experts to scrutinise the pill's safety and effectiveness in late November.

Initial supplies will be limited. Merck has said it can produce 10 million treatment courses through the end of the year, but much of that supply has already been purchased by governments worldwide.

In October, UK officials announced they secured 480,000 courses of molnupiravir and expected thousands of vulnerable Britons to have access to the treatment this winter via a national study.

"Today is a historic day for our country, as the UK is now the first country in the world to approve an antiviral that can be taken at home for COVID-19," said Britain's health secretary, Sajid Javid.

"We are working at pace across the government and with the NHS to set out plans to deploy molnupiravir to patients through a national study as soon as possible," he said in a statement, referring to the UK's National Health Service.

Merck announced preliminary results last month showing its drug cut hospitalisations and deaths by half among patients with early COVID-19 symptoms. The results have not yet been vetted by outside scientists.

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