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You still need a vaccine if you plan to take Merck’s anti-COVID pill: Here’s why

Coronavirus in Kansas

TOPEKA, Kan. (KSNT) — Pharmaceutical giant Merck hopes to get the FDA to sign off on an anti-coronavirus pill. The drug-maker asked for FDA authorization on Monday.

While the pill cuts down on the risk of COVID-19 hospitalization and death by half, according to health experts, it’s considered a treatment, not a method of prevention for the virus.

On Monday, Dr. Dana Hawkinson, Infectious Disease Specialist with the University of Kansas Medical Center, told Kansas Capitol Bureau that the pill is not a “substitute” for the vaccine. Instead, he said the COVID-19 vaccine is still the best way to prevent severe illness.

“We know the benefits that vaccination provides, and right now, those are the best things we have at really keeping you out of the hospital,” Dr. Hawksinson said.

Ridgeback Biotherapeutics and Merck are collaborating on the development of the antiviral pill. If approved, Merck’s pill would be the first anti-viral, oral treatment of its kind to be added as the latest tool in fighting the virus. All other FDA-backed treatments require IV or injections. According to the company, the drug succeeded in cutting down the risk of hospitalization by 50%.

Dr. Hawkinson also said following other preventative measures, like social distancing and wearing masks, helps. And while there’s not much public information yet available about the pill, as the company presents its findings to the FDA, there may be a narrow window for patients to get treatment if it acts like other medications.

“If it’s an anti-viral, there certainly would be time limits on there,” he said. “So, after that first seven to 10 days, if you come into the hospital after that, you may not even be a candidate to get that medicine. We hope it’s going to help decrease hospitalization, especially in those people who are higher risk.”

Still, like other health officials, Hawkinson said he’s waiting on FDA approval and guidance on how to use the drug.

Merck said it could produce about 10 million courses of the pill by the end of 2021.

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