Doctors might soon be able to add a new weapon to their arsenal against COVID-19, but, unlike the vaccine or other treatments, it comes in the form of pills that can be taken from the comfort of their patients' homes.
The Food and Drug Administration will meet Tuesday to discuss Merck’s coronavirus pill, which was shown to reduce the risk of severe illness and death in half among people infected with COVID-19 in clinical trials.
The drug is one of several antiviral pills that could soon hit the market.
Health experts say the pill could play a big role in slowing the spread as winter approaches and vaccine immunity wanes.
"Even vaccinated people whose immunity is waning are going to be vulnerable to infection," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, said.
While Merck awaits FDA approval for its coronavirus pill, Pfizer’s antiviral pill also shows promise. The drug reduced the risk of hospitalization and death by 89 percent among high-risk adults in clinical trials.
Both treatments could be taken from home over the course of five days but need to be given at the very first signs of infection.
Other antiviral drugs are in development including one from Appili Therapeutics, which is undergoing tests in the U.S. and already in use in nine other countries.
"We're going to see isolated outbreaks and you're going to see a drug like this being deployed for a population and adult population that's vulnerable, high risk, probably in long term care or in hospitals to quell or quiet an outbreak before it takes hold," Dr. Armand Balboni told News4.
Balboni said catching COVID early is the key, especially among older adults with some people needing more than one treatment option.
Right now, all COVID-19 therapies including monoclonal antibodies require an IV or injection given at a hospital or a clinic.
"We probably need a full toolbox, not just one part of a solution," Balboni said. "It's going to be a combination of vaccines, monoclonal antibodies and oral tablets that ultimately creates a seasonal disease that we can live with."
With 60 million Americans still unvaccinated, health experts say getting the shot is still the best tool to fight COVID-19, but monoclonal antibodies and a coronavirus pill could make a big difference in the pandemic.
Both Merck and Pfizer’s coronavirus pills were only tested on unvaccinated people in clinical trials.
It’s not clear how much of a difference they would make on those suffering with a breakthrough case but that research is just getting underway.
The U.S. has pre-purchased 3 million treatment courses from Merck and 10 million from Pfizer.