Merck’s antiviral pill may help beat COVID-19, but vaccines and testing still needed

Although COVID-19 vaccines help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and resulting deaths, there have not been many good or easy treatment options for the actual virus. But a new antiviral drug from Merck offers hope for keeping patients infected with COVID-19 out of the hospital and alive. Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, an infectious disease specialist at Boston University, joins William Brangham to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The country will pass another grim number this weekend, 700,000 Americans who have died from COVID and related complications.

    The best way to stop the spread and prevent infection are vaccines, of course. But, throughout the pandemic, there have not been many helpful or easy treatment options once people become infected?

    Now, as William Brangham reports, a new antiviral drug from Merck offers hope for keeping patients infected with COVID-19 out of the hospital and alive.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    The only information we have about this drug comes from Merck itself. Federal regulators and regulators abroad haven't seen any of their data. But an independent board reviewing the drug's initial trial said it should be stopped early because results were so promising. The company is now seeking approval for widespread use.

    To understand how this might help fight the pandemic, I'm joined again by Dr. Nahid Bhadelia. She's an infectious disease specialist at Boston University School of Medicine, where she runs the Center For Emerging Infectious Diseases, Policy and Research.

    Dr. Bhadelia, great to have you back on the "NewsHour."

    What do you make of this drug? Is this a possible new tool for us?

  • Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, Boston Medical Center:

    Well, William, if the data pans out — and an oral antiviral has been the missing piece in the way that we respond to this pandemic.

    And the reason it's important is because, currently, the data that's presented by this press release, which, of course, we need to validate, shows that, if given in the first five days of illness, it can reduce hospitalizations and death by 50 percent of people who at least have one medical condition.

    The difference, though, is, compared to monoclonal antibodies, this is something that you can take by mouth. And the use of monoclonals has been limited — is because it requires intravenous infusion. And that requires a clinic.

    If you can give something by mouth quickly after diagnosis, you are improving the access of the drug to more people, you're keeping more people from getting into the hospitals, and you may also reduce the time that people are contagious, which could reduce transmission as well.

    So, a lot of promise there, although the one thing that I will say is that it needs to be linked with testing. We're limited a bit on the way that we test. And you have to have confirmed COVID-19 to then qualify to take this pill. But, right now, rapid tests are still — we're still being plagued by shortages in many parts of the world, as well as in this country.

  • William Brangham:

    Right. You can't give the drug to people who are infected if you can't figure out who's actually infected.

    So, it's easier to use. You don't need to do it in a hospital. It's in a pill form. Sounds like you don't need to refrigerate it or any of those concerns that we have with the vaccines. Are there other challenges? I mean, can we give us a sense of how quickly this might be manufactured and distributed, again, if it gets approved?

  • Dr. Nahid Bhadelia:

    I think that we — we would have to hear from the manufacturer about their capacity, right?

    This is a — the way that this — a couple of good things about this drug, as well as potential caveats. So I'll start with the caveats. One is, it's not a replacement for vaccines, because it's always going to be better for you not to get infected. This is a drug that you would get if you ended up getting, unfortunately, breakthrough infections or if you're in an undervaccinated area, which are seeing, of course, higher rates of hospitalizations. It will make a big impact.

    In terms of manufacturing, Merck would have to create enough of this drug, right, not just to have an impact here, but, hopefully, that there could be some effort to produce enough of it to also be distributed to parts of the world where vaccines are not available more readily, and where health care systems are getting overwhelmed with the appearance of every new variant of this virus.

  • William Brangham:

    So, can you explain how that works? If — ideally, we get vaccines to every nation and every population that wants them.

    But, prior to that, you're sort of describing this as a — kind of a bridge until vaccines get out there. How does this compare to what a vaccine does as far as its effect on your body?

  • Dr. Nahid Bhadelia:

    This is a drug, an antiviral that stops the replication of the virus by introducing errors when the virus tries to copy itself, right?

    And in some ways, this is similar to some of the HIV drugs that are on the market that do the same kind of work. It's a different type of technology than some of the messenger RNA vaccines that require specialized production. And, hopefully, the barriers to manufacturing this in multiple places may be less, because it is technology that could be their bridge potentially to get to places that haven't been vaccinated enough.

    But they might also be a bridge, William, if — for example, because of the way that they work, the antivirals might be a bit more resilient against new variants. So let's say a new variant appears on the scene. These drugs may actually be a bridge until we can have a beat to update the vaccine to have them address the variants a bit better.

  • William Brangham:

    I know you are an infectious disease scientist, but I'm going to ask you a social science question as well.

    And every time we have seen a new treatment that comes out in this country, we have seen such divergent reactions to it. We have the safe, effective vaccine that millions of people are suspect about, and yet those same people sometimes will embrace untested, unproven treatments for COVID-19.

    Let's just say this drug gets approved. Do you have any sense of whether or not this would be embraced by people or whether this would be the subject of further conspiracy theories?

  • Dr. Nahid Bhadelia:

    Well, I think disinformation and misinformation are a challenge that are, unfortunately, here to stay.

    And I would be — would not be surprised if there was some amount of misinformation and disinformation around these drugs as well. I think what hurts us is when those disinformation and misinformation pieces actually get amplified by larger media platforms around certain drugs or vaccines, which is what you saw with these highly effective vaccines.

    So, I am — I'm holding out my pessimism potentially that, even despite having a potential antiviral drug that is available, that we may see scenarios where people just don't take them because they get politicized. And I really hope we don't see that.

  • William Brangham:

    Well, let's hope, once we see the data, that there's actually some good news. Nice to occasionally be able to report that.

    Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, always good to see you. Thank you very much.

  • Dr. Nahid Bhadelia:

    Thank you.

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