MAINE, USA — Editor's note: The above video on school staff vaccination rates in Maine aired Oct. 20.
A medication developed by the pharmacy giant Merck could become the first pill to treat COVID-19. In clinical trials, Molnupiravir reduced hospitalization and deaths in newly diagnosed patients.
If approved by the FDA late next month, the treatment could be a potential game-changer during the pandemic, by easing patient loads and stress on hospitals here in Maine.
But the treatment is not a replacement for the vaccine, which the Centers for Disease Control says still remains the best tool to prevent infection.
Dr. Dora Mills is the chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth. The new "tool" is an antiviral pill, Molnupiravir. Developed by drug maker Merck, the oral dose includes four 200 milligram capsules taken twice a day for five days after a patient is diagnosed with COVID.
"Given that we do have, you know, that we have people who break through who are vaccinated and people who are unvaccinated, we could have another tool for them," Mills said.
Mills said the treatment could first be available to the elderly and high-risk patients but other patients could possibly be excluded.
"Women of children of childbearing age, if they are pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant, we are not sure. It looks like they won't be able to take it, they may need a pregnancy test first," she said.
The pill by Merck was initially developed as a potential treatment for influenza. Once in the body, the pill works by stopping COVID-19 from multiplying and destroying cells.
"It inserts errors into that genetic code so it can't keep replicating, so it's important it's given very early," Mills said.
Merck is seeking emergency use authorization for Molnupirarvir following successful results of initial patient trials.
"The data did report a fifty percent reduction in that risk of hospitalization or death, which is really encouraging," Matt Marston, vice president of Pharmacy for Northern Light Health, said.
Marston said the treatment could help ease the demand for existing treatments, which are given through an IV and rising patient cases.
The FDA could issue approval for the treatment in late November. If that happens, both Northern Light and Maine Health systems could make the Merck pill available for patients on a limited basis as early as December.