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COVID-19 ‘miracle’ drug may halt craze for vaccine manufacturing

By Chukwuma Muanya
05 October 2021   |   4:09 am
The Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Group of the Manufacturing Association of Nigeria (PMG-MAN) has hailed an experimental drug for severe COVID-19 that cuts the risk of hospitalisation or death by about half.

(Photo by Handout / Merck & Co,Inc. / AFP)

The Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Group of the Manufacturing Association of Nigeria (PMG-MAN) has hailed an experimental drug for severe COVID-19 that cuts the risk of hospitalisation or death by about half.

Interim clinical trial results, published last week, showed the tablet – molnupiravir – was given twice a day to patients recently diagnosed with the disease.

United States (U.S.) drug-maker Merck said its results were so positive that outside monitors had asked to stop the trial early. It said it would apply for emergency use authorisation for the drug in the U.S. in the next two weeks.

Chairman, PMG-MAN, Dr. Fidelis Ayebae, told The Guardian: “This game-changing discovery puts a halt to all the craze for vaccine manufacturing temporarily. People now have more options. The progress made by Merck’s COVID-19 drug has sparked Asian vaccine stock selloff.”

Ayebae said if authorised by regulators, molnupiravir would be the first oral antiviral medication for COVID-19.

The pill, which was originally developed to treat influenza, is designed to introduce errors into the genetic code of the virus, preventing it from spreading in the body.

An analysis of 775 patients in the study found: 7.3 per cent of those given molnupiravir were hospitalised; that compares with 14.1 per cent of patients who were given a placebo or dummy pill; and there were no deaths in the molnupiravir group, but eight patients who were given a placebo in the trial later died of COVID-19.

The data was published in a press release and has not yet been peer-reviewed.

Unlike most COVID-19 vaccines, which target the spike protein on the outside of the virus, the treatment works by targeting an enzyme the virus uses to make copies of itself.

Trial results suggest molnupiravir needs to be taken early after symptoms develop to have an effect. An earlier study in patients who had already been hospitalised with severe COVID-19 was halted after disappointing results.

Merck is the first company to report trial results of a pill to treat COVID-19. But other companies are working on similar treatments. Its U.S. rival, Pfizer, has recently started late-stage trials of two different antiviral tablets, while Swiss company Roche is working on a similar medication.

Merck has said it expects to produce 10 million courses of molnupiravir by the end of 2021. The U.S. government has already agreed to buy $1.2 billion (£885m) worth of the drug if it receives approval from the regulatory body, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The company said it is in discussions with other countries, including the UK, and has also agreed licensing deals with a number of generic manufacturers to supply the treatment to low and middle-income countries.