Merck COVID drug studied at Fred Hutch

SEATTLE — Merck released the clinical trial results of its COVID-19 antiviral drug, molnupiravir. Molnupiravir is the first treatment for COVID that can be taken orally. The five-day treatment was found to reduce hospitalizations by 48%, according to data released by the pharmaceutical company late Thursday.

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle was one of the sites where researchers conducted phase 2 and 3 clinical trials for Merck’s new COVID drug. Ridgeback Biotherapeutics and Merck are collaborating on the development of the antiviral.

Dr. Rachel Bender Ignacio is a physician and scientist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

“These new results about molnupiravir are incredibly exciting because this is the first oral antiviral that has shown benefit,” said Bender Ignacio. “Actually, in this study they saw 100% reduction in death. Eight people in the placebo arm passed away, and nobody receiving treatment.”

It is expected that molnupiravir will be available with a prescription at pharmacies. Other treatments, including monoclonal antibodies, require IVs or injections in infection-controlled hospitals or clinics.

An independent group of experts recommended Merck stop the trial because the results were so favorable. Merck plans to submit its data for Food and Drug Administration review in the coming days.

Dr. Michael Gale is the director of the Center for Innate Immunity & Immune Disease at UW Medicine. He says it will help a health care system already overwhelmed with caring for COVID patients.

“It could make a huge impact. It could relieve the stress on the hospitals. It will take a little time for that to happen. It will play a major role in relieving the stress, and allow hospitals and health care workers to take care of the public without the burden of all the COVID patients,” said Gale.

The five-day treatment also shortens the length of time a person is contagious, which could be significant when it comes to going back to work or school.

“So what we’re really seeing here is the first step to someone potentially getting swabbed at a drive-through testing site, and getting a phone call with a prescription their loved one could pick for them or a pharmacy could deliver to a doorstep,” said Bender Ignacio.

While Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is no longer looking for participants for their phase 3 Merck trial, they do have many other trials underway for COVID-19. If you’re interested in participating in a clinical trial, you can find more information here: in English and Spanish.

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