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The Merck Cherokee Plant in Riverside, Pa. Photo: Paul Weaver/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

An FDA advisory panel on Tuesday voted 13-10 to endorse an antiviral pill developed by Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics to treat adults at high risk of becoming severely ill from COVID-19, despite concerns over its effectiveness and safety.

Why it matters: Oral antiviral drugs designed to prevent or treat COVID-19 could be key pandemic-fighting tools, if proven effective, especially as new variants emerge. If authorized, the Merck drug, known as molnupiravir, would be the first treatment of its kind to be made available in the U.S.

  • Most of the panelists said they believed there should be limits on the use of the drug and that the FDA should not approve its use for pregnant women or children. Several expressed concern over the "safety profile" of the drug and said it should be used strictly with high-risk individuals.

Driving the news: Merck said last week that molnupiravir reduced the risk of hospitalization or death for patients with mild or moderate COVID-19 by about 30%, based on a study of more than 1,400 adults.

  • The treatment is started within five days of the onset of symptoms and can be administered at home.

Between the lines: Enthusiasm for molnupiravir has waned a bit since Merck released its updated data last week showing the drug was less effective than initially reported.

The big picture: The advisory panel's vote comes as countries rush to respond to the emergence of the Omicron variant.

  • More research is needed, but Michel Nussenzweig, an immunologist at Rockefeller University, told the Wall Street Journal that antiviral drugs like Merck's appear to be unaffected by the new variant due to the way the treatment works.

What's next: The FDA must still decide whether to follow the panel's recommendation, though it typically does.

  • If authorized, the pill's supply is expected to be limited at first, the New York Times reports. The Biden administration has already agreed to purchase enough courses of the drug for about 3.1 million people.

What to watch: Pfizer has also asked the FDA for emergency authorization of a similar antiviral pill it developed called Paxlovid.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Jan 15, 2022 - Health

Experts warn of more COVID-19 variants after Omicron

Three COVID-19 testing companies place testing locations outside Grand Central Terminal on Jan. 14 in New York City. Photo: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Experts are warning that subsequent COVID-19 variants are likely to come after Omicron, AP reports.

Why it matters: The warnings come as there's no guarantee that subsequent variants "will cause milder illness or that existing vaccines will work against them," underscoring the need for widespread vaccination, AP writes.

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Winter view from Charlotte as winter storm Izzy creates dangerous conditions in Charlotte, N.C. on Jan. 16. Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A major winter storm was lashing much of the East Coast on Sunday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The big picture: Heavy snow and ice accumulations are "likely to produce hazardous travel," downed trees and more power outages from the Mid-South to the Northeast, per the National Weather Service. Some parts of the U.S. can expect to see up to a foot of snow through Monday.

Updated 2 hours ago - Science

Volcanic eruption in Tonga caused "significant" damage

This satellite image of the eruption on Jan. 15 taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite operated by Japan Meteorological Agency and released by National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT). Photo: NICT via AP

Significant damage has been reported in Tonga following an undersea volcanic eruption on Saturday, which covered the Pacific nation in ash and cut off communication lines.

Driving the news: The eruption triggered tsunami warnings across Tonga's islands and in other regions, including the West Coast of the U.S. and New Zealand.