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US Panel Backs Merck COVID-19 Pill     12/01 06:12

   A panel of U.S. health advisers on Tuesday narrowly backed a closely watched 
COVID-19 pill from Merck, setting the stage for a likely authorization of the 
first drug that Americans could take at home to treat the coronavirus.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- A panel of U.S. health advisers on Tuesday narrowly 
backed a closely watched COVID-19 pill from Merck, setting the stage for a 
likely authorization of the first drug that Americans could take at home to 
treat the coronavirus.

   The Food and Drug Administration panel voted 13-10 that the antiviral drug's 
benefits outweigh its risks, including potential birth defects if used during 

   "I see this as an incredibly difficult decision with many more questions 
than answers," said panel chair Dr. Lindsey Baden of Harvard Medical School, 
who voted in favor of the drug. He said FDA would have to carefully tailor the 
drug's use for patients who stand to benefit most.

   The recommendation came after hours of debate about the drug's modest 
benefits and potential safety issues. Most experts backing the treatment 
stressed that it should not be used by anyone who is pregnant and called on FDA 
to recommend extra precautions before the drug is prescribed, such as pregnancy 
tests for women of child-bearing age.

   The vote specifically backed the drug for adults with mild-to-moderate 
COVID-19 who face the greatest risks, including older people and those with 
conditions like obesity and asthma. Most experts also said the drug shouldn't 
be used in vaccinated people, who weren't part of Merck's research and haven't 
been shown to benefit.

   The FDA isn't bound by the panel's recommendation and is expected to make 
its own decision before year's end. The antiviral is already authorized in the 

   The drug, molnupiravir, could provide a much-needed weapon against the virus 
as colder weather pushes case counts higher and U.S. officials brace for the 
arrival of the new omicron variant.

   Merck hasn't specifically tested its drug against the new variant but said 
it should have some potency based on its effectiveness against other strains of 

   That uncertainty frustrated many panelists as they grappled with whether to 
back the treatment for millions of Americans.

   "With no data saying it works with new variants, I really think we need to 
be careful about saying that this is the way to go," said Dr. David Hardy of 
Charles Drew University School of Medicine and Science, who ultimately voted to 
back the drug.

   On Friday, Merck released updated data that paint a less compelling picture 
of the drug's effectiveness than just a few weeks earlier.

   Merck said final study results showed molnupiravir reduced hospitalization 
and death by 30% among adults infected with the coronavirus, when compared with 
adults taking a placebo. That effect was significantly less than the 50% 
reduction it first announced based on incomplete results.

   For many panelists, the modest effect wasn't enough to outweigh the drug's 
potential toxicity to human fetuses.

   "Given the large potential population affected, the risk of widespread 
effects on potential birth defects has not been adequately studied," said Dr. 
Sankar Swaminathan of the University of Utah School of Medicine, who voted 
against the drug.

   FDA scientists told the panelists earlier Tuesday that company studies in 
rats showed the drug caused birth defects when given at very high doses. FDA 
staffers concluded the data "suggest that molnupiravir may cause fetal harm 
when administered to pregnant individuals."

   The agency is weighing a blanket restriction against any use in pregnant 
women or allowing doctors to use the drug in rare cases. Some panelists said 
that option should be left open for pregnant mothers who have high-risk 
COVID-19 and may have few other treatment options.

   Dr. Janet Cragan, who backed the drug, said that even with tight 
restrictions some pregnant women would inevitably take the antiviral.

   "I don't think you can ethically tell a woman with COVID-19 that she can't 
have the drug if she's decided that's what she needs," said Cragan, a panel 
member and staffer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "I 
think the final decision has to come down to the individual woman and her 

   Merck's drug uses a novel approach to fight COVID-19: It inserts tiny errors 
into the coronavirus' genetic code to stop it from reproducing. That genetic 
effect has raised concerns that the drug could spur more virulent strains of 
the virus. FDA regulators said Tuesday that risk is theoretical but many 
panelists said it should be carefully tracked in follow-up studies.

   Antiviral pills have long been seen as a key advance beyond currently used 
antibody drugs, which must be injected or infused by health professionals. But 
given the shortcomings of Merck's data, several experts said they would 
prioritize patients to receive the older drugs.

   While Merck and its partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics were the first to 
submit their COVID-19 pill to the FDA, rival drugmaker Pfizer is close behind 
with its own pill under review.

   Pfizer's drug is part of a decades-old family of antiviral pills known as 
protease inhibitors, a standard treatment for HIV and hepatitis C. They work 
differently than Merck's pill and haven't been linked to the kind of mutation 
concerns raised with Merck's drug.

   Pfizer said this week that its drug shouldn't be affected by the omicron 
variant's mutations.

   Both drugs require patients to take multiple pills, twice a day for five 

   The U.S. government has agreed to purchase 10 million treatment courses of 
Pfizer's drug, if it's authorized. That's more than three times the 
government's purchase agreement with Merck for 3.1 million courses of 

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