Three takeaways from our exclusive interview with Dr. Vivek Murthy.
This week, Merck announced that it ended a phase 3 clinical trial early and will file for emergency use authorization with the FDA for its antiviral pill molnupiravir. The drug was shown to greatly reduce the risk of death and hospitalization from COVID-19.
But Dr. Oz had one big question, "What took so long?"
Antivirals Will Hopefully Be A Game Changer.
Murthy says that vaccines are still our "primary pathway out of this pandemic," but antivirals will become a broader part of the fight against COVID-19.
"They haven't gotten as much attention as the vaccines," Murthy says. "But the recent announcement from Merck about their clinical trial was promising. They announced that [molnupiravir] in clinical trials afforded a 50% reduction in hospitalization and death among those who are at higher risk of bad outcomes with COVID. That's pretty good."
Murthy also says that because the medication is an oral medicine — meaning you take it by mouth as opposed to a medicine that you have to go into the hospital or a clinic can get by IV — it's a more accessible form of treatment for people not only in the U.S. but around the world.
"This is one more tool that we have in our pocket that we can use," Murthy says.
Still, Murthy notes that this oral antiviral drug still needs to go through more steps before being available to the public, including a "thorough, independent review by the FDA," but the news is "encouraging" nonetheless. We don't know when the reviews will take place, but Merck announced it expects to produce 10 million courses of treatment by the end of 2021. There are other antiviral treatments from other companies currently in clinical trials.
We Need to Keep Our Foot on the Gas When it Comes to Treatments like Monoclonal Antibodies
Murthy said that he and the administration are working on addressing the pandemic — and future pandemics — on multiple fronts. The first few steps, he says, are to develop vaccines quickly, invest in therapeutic treatments, and develop tests and PPE on a large scale.
"There have been efforts to support therapeutics, including monoclonal antibodies, which have saved many lives and prevented many hospitalizations, and those are being increasingly used now, thankfully," Murthy said. "We've got to continue our investment in therapeutics over time."
Dr. Oz notes that monoclonal antibodies as a treatment has been touted by both doctors and the vaccine-hesitant alike, and it has been shown to be remarkably effective — when they're given early in the course of illness — at keeping people out of the hospital.
"They ultimately help save lives," Murthy agreed. "But what we're finding now, though, especially with the Delta surge, is that about seven states are using up 70 percent of the supply of monoclonal antibodies. So we'll continue to keep our foot on the gas in terms of increasing supply. We're happy to see more states now taking up monoclonal antibodies and getting them to their population."
Both Dr. Oz and Dr. Murthy note that receiving monoclonal antibodies as a treatment is not a substitute for getting vaccinated.
We Need More People to Enroll in Clinical Trials
Dr. Oz says that he has spoken to numerous researchers who are struggling to enroll people in clinical trials. For example, he says, in the Merck trial for molnupiravir, they had 775 people in that Phase 3 trial, but there were tens of thousands more people in the vaccine trials. Without individuals participating in these types of clinical trials, the development of new treatment options becomes very difficult.
"Clinical trial recruitment for years has been a real challenge for us in this country," Murthy said. "The more we're able to get people into trials, [the quicker] we can get helpful medications and treatments out to people who really need it. So part of I think what we've got to do is recognize that this is a complex problem. People need to have information."
Dr. Vivek Murthy spoke to Dr. Oz about the possibility of more students being required to get the COVID-19 shot.