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Photo: Paul Weaver/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Merck said Friday that an experimental pill it is developing with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics reduced the risk of hospitalization or death from COVID-19 by around 50% in a clinical trial.

Why it matters: An oral antiviral drug designed to prevent or treat COVID-19 could be a key tool to combat the pandemic, since not all people will get vaccinated and because it will take potentially years to vaccinate people in certain countries around the world.

  • Merck said it will apply for an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration "as soon as possible" to begin distributing molnupiravir because of the results.
  • It will also submit applications to international regulatory agencies.

What they're saying: “More tools and treatments are urgently needed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, which has become a leading cause of death and continues to profoundly affect patients, families, and societies and strain health care systems all around the world," Robert Davis, Merck CEO and president, said.

  • "With these compelling results, we are optimistic that molnupiravir can become an important medicine as part of the global effort to fight the pandemic and will add to Merck’s unique legacy of bringing forward breakthroughs in infectious diseases when they are needed most."

By the numbers: The results are from a trial that initially had a sample size of 775 patients but was soon expanded to 1,550 patients because of compelling efficacy results, Merck said.

  • All patients had a laboratory-confirmed mild-to-moderate case of COVID-19 and at least one risk factor associated with poor disease outcome at the start of the study.
  • 7.3% of patients taking molnupiravir during the trial were either hospitalized or died at the end of 30 days, compared to 14.1% of those receiving a placebo.
  • In June, the Biden administration agreed to buy about $1.2 billion worth of molnupiravir. The company said it expects to produce 10 million total doses of the drug by the end of 2021.

The big picture: Merck's molnupiravir is one of several antiviral medications currently under development or testing.

Go deeper: The antivirals are (hopefully) coming

Go deeper

Updated 6 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Vaccines: CDC says some immunocompromised people can get fourth COVID shot — FDA panel endorses Pfizer vaccines for 5-11 year olds — Moderna says vaccine shows strong immune response in kids
  2. Health: 96% of Tyson Foods employees vaccinated ahead of mandate deadline — U.S. releases updated vaccination, testing rules for foreign travelers — Those who miss work without pay due to COVID also had food insecurity
  3. Politics: Alabama governor orders state agencies to fight federal vaccine mandate — Axios-Ipsos poll: Confidence in Biden COVID recovery tumbles — New York City police union files lawsuit against vaccine mandate.
  4. Education: Benefits of vaccine for children outweigh risks, FDA says — Education secretary reveals limits to Biden’s mask push on states — LA extends deadline for school employee vaccinations.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.
20 hours ago - Health

Those who miss work without pay due to COVID also had food insecurity

Expand chart
Data: Health Affairs; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Lower-wage workers in the U.S. were the most likely to report missing work due to COVID-19, but the least likely to have access to paid sick days or family leave, according to a new report out in Health Affairs on Monday.

Why it matters: The gaps in paid leave policies is the latest evidence of food insecurity experienced during the pandemic among Americans who had to miss work because they were sick or had to take care of someone who was sick.

Updated 21 hours ago - Health

Prime minister flags vaccine mandate for 40% of New Zealand workforce

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during an October COVID-19 briefing in Wellington, New Zealand. Photo: Robert Kitchin - Pool/Getty Images

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Tuesday announced a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for businesses, as the government pushes to reach a nationwide 90% vaccination target.

Why it matters: Under the new COVID-19 Protection Framework, businesses must require vaccine certificates from customers if they're in close contact with them. Ardern said at a briefing Tuesday that such venues wishing to operate, including hair salons, bars, restaurants and gyms, must ensure staff is vaccinated.