Pfizer Says its COVID-19 Pill Reduces Risk of Deaths by 89%

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According to results announced Friday by Pfizer, if taken within three days after exhibiting symptoms, a course of medicines produced by the pharmaceutical corporation can reduce the chance of being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19 by 89 percent.

In a study of over 1,200 COVID-19 patients at high risk of serious illness, those who took Pfizer’s medicines were considerably less likely than those who took placebo pills to end up in the hospital.

According to the data described in a Pfizer press statement, none of the persons who received the genuine drugs died, whereas ten of the people who received placebo tablets died.

In prepared remarks, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said the findings suggest the pill-based treatment may “eliminate up to nine out of ten hospitalizations” if approved, ABC News reports.

These findings are premature, according to infectious disease experts, as they were only published in a press release rather than a peer-reviewed medical journal, but they mark another encouraging step forward in the search for effective and easy-to-administer COVID-19 capsules.

The only treatments that are currently approved are intravenous infusions. “Having an oral therapy is critically important,” said Dr. Carlos Del Rio, the Emory School of Medicine’s executive associate dean and a global health expert.

“If we can get patients to start treatment early before they progress to severe illness and unfortunately death, everyone wins in the fight against COVID,” said Dr. Simone Wildes, a board-certified infectious disease physician at South Shore Health and an ABC News contributor.

Infectious disease experts cautioned that these pills are not a substitute for the vaccine, which is by far the safest and most effective strategy to lower the risk of COVID-19-related hospitalization.

However, if administered quickly to persons who have contracted COVID-19, particularly the immune weakened, or in areas where vaccination is not available, they could make a significant difference.

Although the vaccinated were not included in this study, Pfizer’s pill-based treatment would be good medicine for a patient with COVID and high risk of advancement, vaccinated or not, said Del Rio.

Merck is ahead of Pfizer in developing a COVID tablet medication, having submitted an application to the Food and Drug Administration for approval. The Merck medication could be approved for emergency use by the end of the year.

Merck’s therapy cut the chances of hospitalization and death in half. This could suggest that Pfizer’s medication is more effective, but experts warn against directly comparing the studies because they were designed differently and examined distinct “primary endpoints.”

Dr. Todd Ellerin, director of infectious diseases at South Shore Health and an ABC News Medical Contributor, said, “We need to be cautious comparing studies.”

Before approving any medication, the FDA assesses its safety and efficacy.

Merck’s application will be reviewed by the FDA’s advisory committee on Nov. 30. Merck’s CEO told CNBC in late October that the company is on track to distribute 10 million treatment courses by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Pfizer intends to begin sharing data with the FDA “as soon as possible.”

This Pfizer data is from one of three clinical trials that the company is running. The other two studies should have results by the end of the year. Pfizer then plans to submit all the data and seek authorization at that time, meaning the new medication may be available in early 2022.

Experts believe that combining different antiviral treatments may one day prove beneficial, based on lessons learned from other infectious diseases.

“Pfizer oral drug is an investigational SARS-COV-2 protease inhibitor antiviral therapy,” Wildes said. “We have used protease inhibitors drugs in our HIV patients with and they have worked well.”

“Big picture is this is similar to HIV and [hepatitis C] where we have different antivirals,” Ellerin added. There may be an opportunity for combination therapy in the future, he said. 

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