Coronavirus Update: ‘This is a profound game changer’: Merck’s antiviral pill cuts risk of COVID-19 hospitalization and death in half, data show

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Merck cheered investors and healthcare experts alike on Friday with the news that its COVID-19 antiviral cut the risk of hospitalization or death by roughly half in a late-stage trial, and could become a powerful tool in reining in the pandemic.

The drug company MRK, +9.31% said molnupiravir, an oral antiviral developed with partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, reduced the risk of hospitalization or death in at-risk adult patients with mild to moderate COVID by about 50% in an interim analysis of data from a late-stage trial. The data came from 775 patients out of 1,550 that were enrolled in the trial.

Merck shares soared 9% in early trades Friday as investors welcomed what would be a much-needed and long-awaited treatment for COVID. While several effective vaccines have been developed against the illness, far fewer treatments have emerged, and those that have require infusions and must be administered in a clinical setting.

Molnupiravir is a pill administered orally in capsule form every 12 hours for five days, according to

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Through Day 29 in the Phase 3 trial, no patients given molnupiravir died, compared with the eight patients who died on the placebo. The company is now planning to submit an application for emergency-use authorization for the treatment from the Food and Drug Administration and to seek authorizations from other regulatory bodies around the world.

Merck plans to produce 10 million courses of treatment by year-end. The U.S. government has already committed to purchasing about 1.7 million courses of the drug, once it receives an EUA.

The company said it halted the study early at the recommendation of an independent data-monitoring committee and in consultation with the FDA, because the results were so positive.

Health experts applauded the news and said it would make a big difference in the fight against the coronavirus-borne illness, which has caused the deaths of almost 5 million people since the start of the outbreak.

The news comes as the U.S. is averaging just under 2,000 COVID deaths a day, according to a New York Times tracker, a small improvement on the recent trend. Hospitalizations and new cases have been coming down, but the daily death rate had remained at more than 2,000 for the past few weeks.

Alaska remains the state with the most new cases measured on a per capita basis, and its hospital system is still severely stressed. Elsewhere, some states that were recent hot spots are seeing improving trends, including Florida, which is now reporting fewer than 6,000 cases a day, down from an average of more than 20,000 cases a day during most of August.

Florida has lost 55,009 of its residents to the virus and has had a total of 3.57 million confirmed cases. The state’s population, per the 2020 census, is slightly above 21.5 million.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker is showing that 184.6 million people living in America are fully vaccinated, equal to about 55.6% of the population, a number that has remained relatively static for weeks.

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Hospital staff, universally hailed as heroes in 2020 with nightly ovations raining down from windows and balconies, are now coming under threat from hostility, threats and violence from patients, who have become increasingly angry over safety rules aimed at stopping the spread of the virus, the Associated Press reported.

“A year ago, we’re healthcare heroes and everybody’s clapping for us,” said Dr. Stu Coffman, a Dallas-based emergency-room physician. “And now we’re being in some areas harassed and disbelieved and ridiculed for what we’re trying to do, which is just depressing and frustrating.”

Cox Medical Center Branson in Missouri started giving panic buttons to up to 400 nurses and other employees after assaults per year tripled between 2019 and 2020 to 123, a spokeswoman said. One nurse had to get her shoulder X-rayed after an attack, the AP reported.

Coronavirus Update: BioNTech co-founder says COVID-19 will become manageable but may persist for several years

Elsewhere, Russia had a fourth straight record daily death toll at 887, the Moscow Times reported. That brings Russia’s official coronavirus death toll to 208,142 — Europe’s highest.

Australia is planning to drop some international travel restrictions in November, BBC News reported. Australia’s decision to fully close its borders caused controversy as it left many of its citizens overseas, but it has also succeeded in controlling the spread. Australia has recorded fewer than 1,000 deaths in the pandemic.

Finland will start vaccinating minks on fur farms against COVID with an experimental vaccine, reported. Minks have been found to be susceptible to contracting the illness and to pass it on to humans. Last year, Denmark culled its entire mink population as a cautionary measure.

The World Health Organization said just 2% of the populations of half of the countries in Africa have been vaccinated against COVID, AFP reported. Fifteen of the continent’s 54 nations have managed to vaccinate at least 10% of their people, achieving a global goal for Sept. 30 set in May by the WHO.

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Flu season is approaching and health experts expect it to be worse than last year. WSJ’s Felicia Schwartz explains why this could be an earlier and more severe season and what precautions people can take during the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Latest tallies

The global tally for the coronavirus-borne illness climbed above 233.8 million on Friday, while the death toll rose above 4.78 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.

The U.S. continues to lead the world with a total of 43.4 million cases and 697,870 deaths.

India is second by cases after the U.S. at 33.8 million and has suffered 448,339 deaths. Brazil has the second highest death toll at 596,749 and 21.4 million cases.

In Europe, Russia has reported the most fatalities at 204,424, followed by the U.K. at 137,043.

China, where the virus was first discovered late in 2019, has had 108,454 confirmed cases and 4,809 deaths, according to its official numbers, which are widely held to be massively underreported.