NEW YORK: Pfizer’s experimental antiviral pill to treat Covid-19 cut by 89 percent the chances of hospitalisation or death for adults at risk of severe disease, the company said on Friday, as its CEO vowed to make this promising new weapon in the fight against the pandemic available globally as quickly as possible.
The trial’s results suggest that the oral drug surpasses Merck’s pill, molnupiravir, which was shown last month to halve the risk of dying or being hospitalised for Covid patients at high risk of serious illness.
Pfizer’s pill, with the brand name Paxlovid, could secure US regulatory approval by the end of the year. The Pfizer trial was stopped early due to its high success rate. Full trial data is not yet available from either company.
President Joe Biden said his government had secured millions of doses of the Pfizer drug.
“If authorised by the FDA we may soon have pills that treat the virus in those who become infected,” Biden said. “The therapy would be another tool in our toolbox to protect people from the worst outcomes of Covid.” Shares in Pfizer, which also makes one of the most widely used Covid-19 vaccines, were up nine percent to $47.82, while Merck’s were down 9.3 percent to $82.09. Shares of vaccine makers took a hit, with Moderna Inc, Pfizer’s German partner BioNTech SE and Novavax all down 13-21 percent.
The pill is given in combination with an older antiviral called ritonavir. The treatment consists of three pills given twice daily. It has been in development for nearly two years.
The Pfizer and Merck pills are eagerly anticipated, with only limited options currently available for treating people sick with Covid.
Pfizer is in active discussions with 90 countries over supply contracts for its pill, Chief Executive Officer Albert Bourla said in an interview.
“Our goal is that everyone in the world would be able to have it as quickly as possible,” he said.
Bourla said that for high-income countries Pfizer expects to price its treatment close to where Merck has priced its pill. Merck’s US contract price is around $700 for a five-day course of therapy.
For low-income countries, Bourla said Pfizer was considering several options, with the goal of “no barrier for them as well to have access”.
Merck’s pill was approved by British regulators in a world first on Thursday.
Even with the potential offered by the Pfizer and Merck pills, preventing Covid-19 infections through broad use of vaccines remains the best way to control a pandemic that has killed more than five million people worldwide.
“Vaccines are going to be the most effective and reliable tool that we have in this pandemic,” said Dr Grace Lee, professor of paediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine.
“These oral medications are going to augment our ability to really reduce the risk of severe disease, hospitalisation and death, which is huge, but it won’t prevent infection.” While more than seven billion vaccine doses have been administered worldwide, that has covered only about half the world’s people.
In the United States, 58 percent of all people, including 70 percent of adults, are fully vaccinated. There are more than 400,000 new Covid cases daily worldwide, with infections rising in 50 countries.
Mizuho analyst Vamil Divan forecast a “very minor impact” from the Pfizer drug on vaccination among people who do not want the vaccine or a booster shot as recommended by US health regulators.
“I think there’s a small percentage of people that may decide not to get vaccinated, now that there are good treatment options,” Divan said.
Published in Dawn, November 6th, 2021