LONDON — Merck & Co. Inc.’s antiviral COVID drug molnupiravir is speeding recovery but not reducing hospitalization or death rates in higher-risk vaccinated adults, detailed data from a large study showed on Thursday.
The drug, which stops the virus from multiplying, brought nearly $5 billion in sales for the US drugmaker in the first three quarters of 2022.
Preliminary data from the study, conducted in the winter of 2021-2022 when the Omicron variant was dominant, were released in October. As a result, doctors are already considering restricting the use of molnupiravir in Australia, for example.
The latest results provide more detail and are peer-reviewed.
The study, called PANORAMIC, compared the oral pill to standard care alone in people over 50 or 18 and older with underlying conditions. You have been unwell in the community with confirmed COVID for five days or less.
When Merck originally tested molnupiravir, it was 30% effective in reducing hospitalizations, but in unvaccinated patients.
In the latest study, led by Oxford University researchers, almost all of the more than 25,000 patients in the study had received at least three doses of the vaccine.
These results show that the vaccine’s protection is so strong that there is no apparent benefit of the drug in terms of further reducing hospitalizations and deaths, said study co-author Jonathan Van-Tam of the University of Nottingham.
However, the drug was effective at reducing viral loads and may help speed patients’ recovery by about four days, the researchers estimated based on study data.
There could be circumstances where molnupiravir could be useful, for example in stressed healthcare systems where it could be used to help key workers get back to work faster, Chris Butler, co-leader of the study, told researchers from Oxford University.
But ultimately, those benefits need to be weighed against the cost of the drug, added study co-leader Paul Little of the University of Southampton. The drug, which was developed with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, is estimated to cost several hundred pounds for a five-day course.
“Right now, I think you need to say you’re not using this drug in the general population, including those at a little higher risk,” Mr. Little said.
Extremely clinically vulnerable patients, while eligible to enroll in PANORAMIC, were encouraged to access COVID treatment directly from the UK National Health Service, making molnupiravir’s findings less applicable to patients at highest risk, the authors wrote in the medical journal Lancet.
Last month, the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommended against the use of molnupiravir at current prices because cost-effectiveness estimates are higher than what it sees as an acceptable use of national health system resources. – Reuters