New COVID-19 treatment: Could people be taking pills instead of the vaccine?

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Photo by Towfiqu Barbhuiya via Unsplash.com

COVID-19 pills, alongside the vaccine shots, may soon be another form of treatment for the COVID-19 virus.

Mukul Kulkarni, Copy Editor

With the Omicron variant being the most transmissible COVID-19 variant yet, there is some good news in terms of treatment. Merck, a pharmaceutical company, and Pfizer each developed game-changer oral treatments that could drastically reduce hospitalizations and death. 

Both companies convey that their pill is effective against the new omicron variant. 

Merck had its pill a month before Pfizer, releasing its trial results back in October of 2021. The results indicated Merck’s pill, Lagevrio, decreased hospitalizations or death by 50% in a large randomized trial. The pill would be taken over five days, in which patients would take a total of 40 pills. Meanwhile, in November of 2021 Pfizer said its pill, called Paxlovid, was around 89% effective in preventing hospitalizations or deaths compared to placebo in its clinical trials. There were no deaths in the trials compared to the 10 deaths of patients who received placebo.

Pfizer is excited upon the release of the pill. “It’s a stunning outcome,” Pfizer Chief Scientific Officer Mikael Dolsten said in an interview. “We’re talking about a staggering number of lives saved and hospitalizations prevented. And of course, if you deploy this quickly after infection, we are likely to reduce transmission dramatically.”

If the FDA approves these pills, doctors could be prescribing them to patients diagnosed with COVID as early as the end of this year, and patients could then pick them up at local pharmacies. 

One major worry with the release of the pill is that many people would take it as an alternative to the vaccine, heightening the resistance towards it.

Dr. Scott Ratzan, who teaches at the City University of New York Graduate School of Public Health, conducted a survey consisting of 3,000 Americans. Out of the 753 people in the nationwide survey who as of Nov. 12 had not been vaccinated, 34% preferred to treat COVID with a pill, compared to the 15% who would prefer to prevent the illness by getting vaccinated.

Health experts emphasize that the pill is only most effective when it is given early in diagnosis of the infection. It does not meet the overarching goal, which is to not get infected by the coronavirus in the first place.

Health experts such as Ratzan, a former scientific adviser to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, stress the importance of not forgetting about the vaccine. “The new COVID pills are a big deal, but vaccinations will always be the cornerstone of our response to COVID,” said Ratzan. “It’s always better to prevent a disease from happening at all… Only a vaccine can control the rate at which a virus spreads and mutates.”

Dr. Radhika Kolla, an internal medicine doctor, also accentuates the weight of the vaccines. “Vaccination is free and effective. The medication is very expensive and you still get sick before you get better,” Kolla said. “On the other hand, with vaccination, you prevent serious illness more than 90% which has been proven over [the] past two years.”

When used effectively, the new pill will be another “great tool in our toolbox,” as CDC director Dr. Anthony Fauci called it, to stop the pandemic once and for all. The pill is a game-changer and will revolutionize how people get treated for the COVID-19 virus.