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Merck’s virus pill ‘not cut death, hospitalization in the vaccinated’

This handout photo obtained May 26, 2021 courtesy of Merck & Co, Inc shows capsules of the investigational antiviral pill Molnupiravir. (HANDOUT / MERCK & CO, INC / AFP)

LONDON/LOS ANGELES – Merck & Co Inc's COVID-19 antiviral molnupiravir speeds up recovery but does not reduce the hospitalization or death rate in higher-risk vaccinated adults, detailed data from a large study showed on Thursday.

The drug, which prevents the virus from replicating, generated nearly $5 billion in sales for the US drugmaker in the first three quarters of 2022.

Preliminary data from the study, carried out in the winter of 2021-2022 when the Omicron variant was dominant, was unveiled in October. As a result, doctors are already considering limiting molnupiravir's use, for instance, in Australia.

The results in the study called PANORAMIC, led by University of Oxford researchers, demonstrate that vaccine protection is so strong that there is no obvious benefit from Merck's COVID-19 drug in terms of further reducing hospitalization and deaths, said study co-author Jonathan Van-Tam from the University of Nottingham

The latest results offer more detail and have been peer-reviewed.

The study, called PANORAMIC, compared the oral pill against standard treatment alone in people over 50 or those aged 18 and older with underlying conditions. They had been unwell with confirmed COVID -19 for five days or fewer in the community setting.

When Merck originally tested molnupiravir, it was found 30 percent effective in reducing hospitalizations, but that was in unvaccinated patients.

In the latest study, led by University of Oxford researchers, nearly all of the more than 25,000 patients in the study had received at least three vaccine doses.

These results demonstrate that vaccine protection is so strong that there is no obvious benefit from the drug in terms of further reducing hospitalization and deaths, said study co-author Jonathan Van-Tam from the University of Nottingham.

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The drug was, however, effective in reducing viral load and can help hasten patient recovery by roughly four days, researchers estimated based on study data.

There might be circumstances in which molnupiravir could be useful, for instance, in under-pressure health systems where it could be used to help key workers back to work quicker, said co-chief study investigator Chris Butler from the University of Oxford.

But ultimately, those benefits need to be weighed against the drug's cost, added co-chief study investigator Paul Little from the University of Southampton. The drug, which was developed with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, is estimated to cost several hundred pounds for a five-day course.

"For the moment, I think you have to say that don't use this drug in the general population, including those at slightly higher-risk," said Little.

Extremely clinically vulnerable patients, although eligible to enroll in PANORAMIC, were encouraged to access COVID-19 treatment directly from Britain's National Health Service, so the molnupiravir findings are less applicable to highest-risk patients, authors wrote in the medical journal Lancet.

People wait outside a community center as long lines continue for individuals trying to be tested for COVID-19 during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in San Diego, California, US, Jan 10, 2022. (MIKE BLAKE / REUTERS)

United States

The increase in COVID-19 and drug overdose deaths have pushed US life expectancy to the lowest level since 1996, according to a new report released Thursday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

There were 3,464,231 total deaths in the United States during 2021, 80,502 more than the total reported in 2020, according to the CDC. 

Life expectancy at birth for the US population decreased from 77 years in 2020 to 76.4 years in 2021, a decline for the second consecutive year, according to the CDC.

Heart disease remained the leading cause of death in the United States last year, followed by cancer and COVID-19.

In 2021, nearly 107,000 Americans died of drug overdose, an increase of nearly 16 percent over 2020, according to the CDC. Drug overdose deaths have risen five-fold over the past two decades in the country.