CHICAGO, Nov. 8 (Reuters) – Oral antiviral pills from Merck & Co (MRK.N) and Pfizer Inc (PFE.N) have been shown to significantly mitigate the worst effects of COVID-19 if taken early enough, but Doctors warn vaccine hesitant people not to confuse the benefits of the treatments with the prevention vaccines provide.
While 72% of US adults have received their first shot of the vaccine, the pace of vaccination has slowed, according to a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, as political bias in the United States divides opinion on the value and safety of vaccines against the coronavirus.
Vaccination mandates by employers, states and the administration of US President Joe Biden have helped to increase the number of vaccinations, but have also fueled that controversy.
Some disease experts fear the advent of oral COVID-19 treatments could further hamper vaccination campaigns. Preliminary results of a survey of 3,000 U.S. citizens by the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Public Health suggest that the drugs “may hinder efforts to get people vaccinated,” said Scott Ratzan, a health communications expert at CUNY, who led the investigation.
Ratzan said one in eight respondents would rather be treated with a pill than vaccinated. “That’s a high number,” Ratzan said.
The concern follows Friday’s news from Pfizer, maker of a leading COVID-19 vaccine, that its experimental antiviral pill Paxlovid reduced the risk of hospitalization and death from the disease by 89% in high-risk adults. read more
Pfizer’s results followed news from Merck and partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics on Oct. 1 that their oral antiviral drug cut hospitalization and death by half. That drug, known as molnupiravir, received conditional approval in the UK on Thursday. read more Both require approval from US health regulators, but could hit the market in December.
“By relying solely on an antiviral drug, it’s a bit of a roll of the dice in terms of how you’ll do it. Obviously it’ll be better than nothing, but it’s a high stakes game to play.” said Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert and professor of molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine.
Six infectious disease experts interviewed by Reuters were equally enthusiastic about the prospect of effective new treatments for COVID-19 and agreed that they were not a substitute for vaccines.
Even in light of the highly transmissible Delta variant of the virus, Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines remain effective and reduce the risk of hospitalization by a combined 86.8%, according to a government study of U.S. veterans.
They said some unvaccinated people have already relied on monoclonal antibodies — drugs that must be given through intravenous IV infusions or injections — as a safety net in case they become infected.
“I think the Pfizer news is great news. It goes hand in hand with vaccination. It doesn’t replace it,” said Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor of public health at George Washington University and former Baltimore Health Commissioner.
Choosing not to get vaccinated “would be a tragic mistake,” said Albert Bourla, chief executive officer of Pfizer Inc. “These are treatments. This is for the unfortunate who get sick,” Bourla told Reuters in an interview on Friday. “This should not be a reason not to protect yourself and endanger yourself, your household and society.”
One of the main reasons for not relying on the new pills, the experts say, is that antiviral drugs, which prevent the virus from multiplying in the body, must be given in a narrow window early in the disease because COVID-19 is different. knows phases.
In the first stage, the virus multiplies rapidly in the body. However, many of the worst effects of COVID-19 occur in the second phase, as a result of a faulty immune response caused by the replicating virus, said Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease expert and the CEO and founder of Just Human Productions, a not-for-profit multimedia organization.
“Once you develop shortness of breath or other symptoms that would require hospitalization, you’re in that dysfunctional immune phase where the antivirals really aren’t going to provide much benefit,” she said.
Hotez agreed. He said getting treatment early enough can be challenging because the window in which the virus transitions from the replication phase to the inflammatory phase is fluid.
“For some people that will happen sooner, for some later,” Hotez said.
Hotez said many people in the early stages of the disease feel surprisingly well and may not be aware that their oxygen levels are dropping, one of the first signs that the inflammatory phase of the disease has begun.
“Often you don’t realize you’re getting sick until it’s too late,” he said.
Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Additional reporting by Josephine Mason in London, Deena Beasley in Los Angeles and Manojna Maddipatla in Bengaluru; adaptation by Caroline Humer and Grant McCool
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