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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

22 hours ago - World

COVID cases surge in South Africa in sign Omicron wave is coming

Recreated from Our World in Data; Chart: Axios Visuals

South Africa alerted the world to the Omicron variant. Now data out of South Africa may serve as a warning of what we're facing.

Driving the news: South Africa recorded 11,535 new cases Thursday with 22.4% of tests coming back positive — up from an average of about 300 new cases, with a 2% test positivity rate 10 days earlier. The country's top public health officials expect that exponential rise to continue as Omicron rapidly becomes the dominant variant.

Updated 21 hours ago - Health

Omicron cases confirmed in 5 U.S. states

A healthcare worker inserts a Covid-19 rapid test into a machine in Denver, Colorado. Photo: Daniel Brenner/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Hawaii became on Thursday the fifth state to confirm the newly discovered Omicron variant after New York announced five new cases earlier in the day.

The latest: In Hawaii, the variant was found in an unvaccinated O'ahu resident with moderate symptoms who had previously been infected with COVID-19, per a state health department statement. The variant has also been confirmed in California, Colorado and Minnesota.

Dec 2, 2021 - World

Germany approves new restrictions for unvaccinated people

Photo: John MacDougall - Pool/Getty Images

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday that people who are unvaccinated will not be allowed in nonessential shops, cultural and recreational venues, AP reports.

State of play: Merkel, alongside incoming Chancellor Olaf Scholz, said the measures were necessary to avoid overflowing hospitals with coronavirus patients. The country is seeing an increase in daily infections.