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The Ongoing Race For Effective Coronavirus Treatments

Merck, Pfizer and now Shionogi in race to develop oral drug against COVID-19

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Japan is in the news again, and not just because of the Olympic Games. Within the borders of the world’s third largest economic power, the Osaka-based company Shionogi will begin human trials of a pill that mitigates the symptoms of COVID-19.

Shionogi, the same pharmaceutical company that developed Crestor, a cholesterol-fighting drug, is conducting clinical studies with a sample of volunteers to measure the pill’s efficacy. The human trials began this month and will continue into next year.

The Osaka-based company expects to conduct a first study among 50 to 100 healthy subjects in Japan. A larger test will occur later, where the drug or placebo will be given to patients being treated by COVID-19.

covid pill
Pfizer and Merk are also developing their own pill against COVID-19. (Image: EFE)

Despite the announcement, Shoinogi is behind Merk and Pfizer in the race to develop a pill to treat COVID-19. Pfizer had already announced that it would enter Phase I trials to test its coronavirus pill on March 23, four months ahead of Shionogi.

Merk, for its part, had already obtained the first results of its Phase I studies by the beginning of March, and is now carrying out studies and planning others in countries such as Colombia, Israel, Russia and the United States.

Merck is currently the pharmaceutical company that has made most progress with its drug to combat COVID-19, Molnupiravir. The drug is already in Phase III trials with more than 1,200 patients in India.

U.S. funds development of a pill against COVID-19

Last year the U.S. transferred more than $18 billion to pharmaceutical companies for the development of a vaccine for coronavirus, this year the U.S. government will spend more than $3 billion on a program to develop an antiviral pill against COVID-19.

The Biden administration will allocate more than $1.2 billion for phase III studies of Molnupiravir. About 1.7 million treatments with Merck’s pill will be funded by the government to test its effectiveness on coronavirus infection.

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The Biden administration pledged to push for the development of an anti-COVID-19 pill, with more than $3 billion in funding. (Image: EFE)

Merck’s pill consists of a potent ribonucleotide, which inhibits the replication of SARS-Cov-2 virus molecules, the causative agent of COVID-19. According to Merck, Molnupiravir has been effective in preventing transmission of the coronavirus in its different variants.

Pfizer and Shionogi’s pills stop infection by inhibiting an enzyme called protease, which facilitates transmission of the virus into cells. Protease inhibitors have been widely used in the past to fight other viruses such as HIV, the virus that causes AIDS disease.

One of the main challenges in creating a pill to block infection is viral resistance. Because the coronavirus is such an infectious virus, it can develop multiple variants in a short time, so a drug could become completely obsolete in a few months.

Although Merk has the lead in developing a pill against COVID-19 at the moment, evidence with vaccines has shown that a single drug is not enough to meet the immense demand, so there is still and will be room for many more competitors to enter the market and develop drugs to stop or mitigate coronavirus infection.

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