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New Pill Could Reduce Risk of Hospitalization, Death From COVID-19, But Experts Say Vaccines Remain Best Tool

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- A potentially game-changing drug in the fight against COVID-19.

Pharmaceutical company Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics said they've developed a drug that reduces the risk of hospitalization or death for patients with mild or moderate cases of COVID.

If cleared by federal regulators, it would be the first pill to treat COVID-19.

Doctors said this COVID-19 pill will hopefully allow them to treat many more COVID patients at home faster, and ease the load on hospitals.

But they also want to remind people this new breakthrough should not minimize the push to get vaccinated.

"This is exciting and can be a really important part of our toolbox," Dr. Namandje N. Bumpus, director of the Department of Pharmacology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said.

Pharmaceutical company Merck and partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics recently announced promising results with its experimental COVID-19 anti-viral drug, Molnupiravir.

"It essentially works by preventing replication of the SARS-CoV-2 virus," Bumpus said.

The drug company looked at 775 adults with mild to moderate COVID-19, at high risk for severe disease. The patients who received the antiviral pill took it within five days of symptoms.

"They needed to stop the study and go forward and present the data, because it was so positive and so clear-cut, it seems," Bumpus said.

Their study shows the pill has cut the risk of hospitalization or death from COVID-19 in at-risk patients by 50%.

"I think when we're seeing these things come out, there's a little bit of thinking now, Well I don't need to get vaccinated now, if there's a treatment," Bumpus said.

Still, doctors continue to stress vaccines remain the number one tool in the fight against COVID-19.

"We're trying to prevent getting COVID in the first place," Bumpus said.

This comes as Maryland reported over 1,000 new COVID-19 cases and four deaths Sunday. The statewide positivity rate is slightly up, at 4.1 percent.

"There's people getting their first dose today," said Dr. Kathleen Page, infectious disease physician and faculty at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "So that's fantastic."

In Baltimore, COVID-19 ambassadors with the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine have been hard at work targeting the Latino community.

"I think it's important to be where the community is, to meet people where they are," Page said.

So far, over 107,000 Marylanders have received booster shots, and there's been a sharp rise in the daily first and second doses administered over the past two days.

Merck officials said the company plans to seek emergency authorization from the FDA as soon as possible for its COVID-19 treatment pill.

They will also seek authorization from regulators around the world.

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