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Pfizer has announced new results for a pill that fights COVID-19

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Pfizer has announced new results this morning for its pill that fights COVID-19. It's called Paxlovid. NPR's Pien Huang is here to talk about it. Good morning.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Did I say that right? Paxlovid - is that correct?

HUANG: That's right. Yeah. Paxlovid.

INSKEEP: OK. OK, so what does the testing show about it?

HUANG: Well, the results that are in are very good. Pfizer says that their antiviral drug is 89% effective at keeping high-risk people out of the hospital if they start taking the pill within three days of getting symptoms and 88% effective if they take it within five days of getting those symptoms. So the drug is good at keeping COVID symptoms from getting worse. Mikael Dolsten, Pfizer's chief scientific officer, put the numbers this way.

MIKAEL DOLSTEN: If you would treat 100,000 patients of this type with Paxlovid, you would prevent more than 5,500 hospitalization and save some 1,100 lives.

HUANG: It could also take a huge burden off of overwhelmed hospitals and health care workers.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

HUANG: And today's results track pretty closely with earlier data from November, which showed a similar effectiveness of nearly 90%.

INSKEEP: How does this compare to this other drug we heard about a few weeks ago that didn't seem to test quite so well?

HUANG: Well, that one is called molnupiravir. It's made by Merck. And that one had seemed promising at first, but those final results showed that it was just 30% effective, which, you know, experts weighing its risks and benefits had some real pause. So Paxlovid currently looks like it's really holding up a lot better at keeping severe COVID at bay than molnupiravir, and both are currently under consideration from the FDA.

INSKEEP: So let me just talk this through with you here. This isn't a vaccine. It's not something you take before you get COVID. It's not a prophylactic of some kind. Who exactly is it intended for?

HUANG: Well, the drug is currently - or the drug was tested on people with what's called mild to moderate COVID, meaning they're sick, but they're not sick enough to be hospitalized. But they do have COVID. And these were people who, because of age or medical condition like diabetes or lung disease, were at high risk of getting really sick. The drug is a three-pill regimen. It's two pills of Paxlovid with a booster drug called ritonavir, and it's taken twice a day for five days. And like we said earlier, it needs to be given soon after someone develops symptoms - within three to five days - because that's the stage when the virus is making copies of itself and spreading throughout the body, and the drug is designed to stop that process.

INSKEEP: Oh, well, if it stops that copying process, does it also make COVID less contagious?

HUANG: Probably. Pfizer's results say that people who took the drug had a tenfold decrease in viral load compared to those who didn't, and having less virus in the body isn't just helpful for kicking the infection. It also means that a person has less virus to cough or sneeze out, so it's less likely that the people around them will get infected. Dolsten from Pfizer told me that the drug had changed the public health approach to the pandemic.

DOLSTEN: Before, what you could offer would be track, trace and isolate. But now you can offer track, trace and treat.

HUANG: So what that means is that once you've tested positive and have some symptoms, you could start taking pills at home. And you'd still want to rest up and not spread the virus, but having less virus in your system would help. And if these pills get authorized, the U.S. government has a contract with Pfizer to buy 10 million courses for $5.3 billion.

INSKEEP: What are the next steps toward authorization?

HUANG: Well, Pfizer has submitted an application to the FDA, and the agency is working through its own review of the data. The agency hasn't shared a timeline yet, but with cases, hospitalizations and deaths rising right now, they'll probably want to move quickly on this.

INSKEEP: Yeah, we're hearing elsewhere in today's program about overcrowded hospitals. NPR's Pien Huang, thanks so much.

HUANG: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVOCATIV'S "ASCENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.