Early days yet. Still lots of research needs to be done. But there are reasons to hope.

Matthew Herper, Stat »

An investigational antiviral pill reduced the chances that patients newly diagnosed with Covid-19 would be hospitalized by about 50%, a finding that could give doctors a desperately needed new way to treat the sick, the drug maker Merck announced Friday.

A five-day course of molnupiravir, developed by Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, reduced both hospitalization and death compared to a placebo. In the placebo group, 53 patients, or 14.1%, were hospitalized or died. For those who received the drug, 28, or 7.3%, were hospitalized or died.

A simple oral medication to help treat Covid-19 has been an elusive goal since the start of the pandemic. Other drugs, including Gilead’s remdesivir, have also been shown to reduce hospitalizations if given early in the course of disease, but must be given intravenously.

“If this pans out, it will change the landscape,” said Andy Pavia, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at University of Utah. “There’s still a lot we need to know. What does the side effect profile look like? Do we know how to dose it in populations that are different such as children and the obese? But as a top-line result, this is definitely exciting.”

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