Wisconsin doctors: COVID-19 pill could be 'groundbreaking,' but not a vaccine substitute

Wisconsin doctors: COVID-19 pill could be ’groundbreaking,’ but not a vaccine substitute

MILWAUKEE, Wis. (CBS) -- A first-of-its kind pill could soon be another tool in the global fight against COVID-19.

The drugmaker Merck announced on Friday, Oct. 1, that an experimental COVID-19 pill shows promising results and it plans to ask for emergency use authorization in the coming days. 

Merck said the drug called molnupiravir reduced hospitalizations and deaths by 50 percent in people with mild to moderate COVID-19.

"Hopefully this can alleviate that burden and maybe help us manage the pandemic moving forward," said Ajay Sethi, associate professor of population health sciences at University of Wisconsin-Madison. "We have to review the data to see the safety and efficacy, but it looks promising so far."

Every current COVID-19 treatment requires an IV or an injection.

Doctors in Wisconsin said the pill could also help alleviate a strain on hospitals. If the pill is approved, people could take it at home and would not have to come to the hospital to get treated.

"Anything that can decrease that burden on hospitals is going to be critical," said Dr. Ben Weston, chief health policy advisor for Milwaukee  County.

Weston said the drug could be "groundbreaking," but cautions that there are some caveats.

"You have to take it, seems like, early in your illness. That means frequent testing, potentially more rapid testing than we're seeing right now," Weston said.

The pill has to be taken within the first five days of symptoms. Early results show the drug did not benefit people who were already hospitalized with COVID-19.

Weston said the pill is not an alternative to getting vaccinated, and vaccines are still our best weapon in the fight against COVID-19.

"Prevention is still far better than treatment. It's better from a public health perspective. It's better from a financial perspective," Weston said. "It's far cheaper to get vaccinated than to take this treatment, let alone to get hospitalized."

Sethi noted that the vaccines are more effective than 50 percent at preventing severe COVID-19.

"This is just another tool because, unfortunately, we do have too many people right now who are unvaccinated," Sethi said.

Other companies including Pfizer and Roche are testing similar drugs that could also report results in the coming weeks.

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