The Covid-19 pill is coming. But countries, like Romania, are lagging behind in vaccines
US pharmaceutical giant Merck Sharp and Dohme (MSD) announced that the first antiviral pill to treat Covid-19 patients has been approved in the UK, just last week.
The tablet – Molnupiravir – will conclude the world’s first oral treatment for treating patients with the disease. Clinical trials have had positive outcomes so far – the pill, who had originally been developed to treat the flu is said to have cut likelihood of hospitalisation and death by half.
While this pill might be a game changer for the immune sensitive and the extremely frail of patients, who have been unable to get the Covid-19 vaccine due to health complications, the vaccine remains the most important tool we have at our disposal to prevent and fight this gruelling global pandemic.
With the pill having been approved in the UK, the country has already approved to purchase 480,000 courses, while the first deliveries are already expected this very month. The BBC reports that it is still unclear the procedure by which the pill will be prescribed to patients.
“Initially it will be given to both vaccinated and unvaccinated patients through a national study, with extra data on its effectiveness collected before any decision to order more. The drug needs to be given within five days of symptoms developing to be most effective. It’s not immediately clear how it will be distributed so quickly by the NHS. It’s thought some care homes may be offered supplies while other elderly or vulnerable patients may be prescribed it by their GP after testing positive for Covid-19, says the British publication.
While the UK regulator has stated that this pill may be given to people with mild to moderate symptoms and at least one risk factor of developing serious Covid-19 complications, the importance of having a first approved antiviral medication that can be administered outside a hospital setting and before the patient reaches a critical condition, is ground-breaking.
In the meantime, a day after the MSD announcement, Pfizer also released its findings when it comes to developing its own pill against Covid-19. The US company, whose revenue soared to 24.1 billion dollars, up 134% from a year earlier, announced that the drug – Plaxovid – cut the risk of hospitalisation or death by 89% in vulnerable adults. In addition to MSD’s Molnupiravir pill, the UK had already ordered 250,000 of the Pfizer pill, though it has not been approved yet.
While demand for treatments that can be taken at home when infected are soaring, the vaccine is still regarded as the best means of controlling the pandemic. However, as we near one year since the vaccine rollout had started worldwide, the discrepancy between the countries could not be greater.
The disparity in supply has seen developing countries lacking in vaccine doses, or reaching the country even after their expiration date had passed. This socio-economic and political cleavage can even be seen in rich regions, like Europe.
While the average vaccinated population within the EU block is 81%, with many countries having reached the 90% mark, Eastern-European countries are lacking due to a poor vaccination campaign, misinformation, vaccine hesitancy, corruption and political crises, as it is the case in Romania.
However, if the these experimental drugs will be widely authorised, these pills will have a huge potential to fight the pandemic at a far different level – “pills are easier to take, manufacture and store, making them particularly useful in lower- to middle-income countries with weaker infrastructure and limited vaccine supplies”, writes the Washington Post.
In addition, experts are suggesting that fear of needles may also be a factor among people declining coronavirus vaccines, though a fairly unrecognised one. “About one in four adults and two out of three children have some fear of needles, and adults may find their fears too shameful to share”, writes a professor of psychology in the New York Times.
With four other oral vaccine candidates in clinical development at the moment, according to a recent World Health Organisation report, and eight other candidates designed to be taken nasally, researchers, policy makers and experts are hoping that this will not only increase the likelihood that people would feel more comfortable accepting these alternatives, but they will also be easier to make.
Especially when it comes to immunising children, this medical development be a revelation. Research has found that parents are 10% more likely to vaccinate their children, if this could be done/administered without pain. Recognising this reticence is also especially noteworthy given the current Covid-19 situation.
As the new Covid-19 strains have evolved, most of the infections are present among children. With parents’ reticence to vaccinate their children, late developments and authorisations to vaccinate to vaccinate children under 12 and with high exposure due to public formats, like kindergartens and schools, children are now becoming the main carriers spreading the virus forward.
The European Union has announced that it is negotiating with Merck and Pfizer over possible contracts to supply these experimental Covid-19 drugs. As the EU talks are still pending a result, the race for getting these new drugs are already underway.
U.S. President Joe Biden said last week that the United States had secured “millions” of courses of the Pfizer treatment, and has also bought 1.7 million courses of Merck’s. Australia and several Asian countries have also secured courses of the new drugs or are in the process of doing so.
Indonesia’s drug regulator said on Monday that it was reviewing Merck’s pill, ahead of a possible purchase of up to 1 million courses of it next month read more. Thailand, which has been in talks with Merck to buy 200,000 treatments since October, is also in negotiations with Pfizer for its pill, Reuters reports.
Even though pills are unlikely to end the pandemic, even if they do prove effective – their potential for mass production is far away. Despite it being an easier treatment, it is also more limited, compared to the vaccine – it is recommended that users take it within the first five days of the onset of symptoms. That is a tight time frame, especially in countries that have limited supplies of coronavirus tests.
Photo source: Merck