Japanese panel approves Merck’s COVID-19 pill

Courtesy of MSD
Merck & Co.’s COVID-19 oral drug molnupiravir

TOKYO (Jiji Press) — Health minister Shigeyuki Goto on Friday approved Merck & Co.’s COVID-19 pill molnupiravir for use in the country, making it the first oral treatment for coronavirus patients with mild symptoms in Japan.

The at-home antiviral pill is expected to ease burdens on patients and hospitals. It is effective against the omicron variant, health ministry officials said.

The government plans to distribute doses of the pill for 200,000 people nationwide from Sunday, making them available for use starting as early as Monday.

Molnupiravir will “play a key role in enabling people to live their lives with a sense of security,” Goto said. “I believe it will significantly advance our country’s coronavirus response.”

Medical workers are welcoming molnupiravir’s approval, as administering the pill is vastly less of a burden than using existing remedies such as the intravenous antibody cocktail Ronapreve, which requires doctors to monitor patients.

“If it is prescribed to infected people swiftly, continuous care from an early stage will become possible,” said Takafumi Nakagawa, head of a clinic in Sapporo. “It could be a game changer.”

Molnupiravir is “effective if used at an early stage,” said Akishige Obata, head of a clinic in the western city of Osaka. “If it can be used easily, COVID-19 may become an illness that can be handled with an oral remedy, like influenza.”

“The drug will help me feel at ease,” said a nurse in her 40s working at a nursing facility for elderly people in Tokyo which has many high-risk people.

On Dec. 3, a Japanese unit of the U.S. drugmaker applied to the ministry for approval of the pill, jointly developed with U.S. biopharmaceutical firm Ridgeback Biotherapeutics.

The pill will be available to high-risk patients aged 18 or older, other than pregnant women, with mild to moderate symptoms. It will be administered twice a day for five days.

The government is calling on patients to take the remedy as early as possible, as it is only shown to be effective in the first five days after the emergence of symptoms. A clinical trial found that the pill reduced risks of hospitalization and death by around 30%.

Britain became the first country to approve the pill in November. The European Union and the United States also have approved it. France, on the other hand, canceled its order for the drug, citing insufficient clinical trial results.

Merck has agreed to supply doses of the pill for 1.6 million people to the Japanese government. The country has also agreed to receive doses of another COVID-19 pill, developed by Pfizer Inc., for two million people.

Pharmaceutical firm Shionogi & Co. is also developing a COVID-19 pill.

Existing COVID-19 remedies in Japan are either medications for patients with moderate to severe symptoms who need oxygen or intravenous drugs and other treatments that are not available at home.