By: Larissa Scott Posted at 7:47 AM, Dec 03, 2021 and last updated 8:06 AM, Dec 03, 2021
TAMPA, Fla. — “We have two pills now that are attacking two very different parts of the virus’s life cycle which is really great,” said Dr. Thomas Unnasch, Distinguished USF Health Professor.
Merck and Pfizer’s COVID-19 pills work completely differently.
The Merck pill attacks COVID-19’s building block of RNA.
“What that pill is, is it’s basically it goes in and it’s a building block of the RNA, but it’s a bad building block of the RNA. So when the virus starts to incorporate that bad building block it starts to make a whole lot of mistakes and instead of copying it correctly it makes a mess,” said Unnasch.
“It just totally screws up its ability to copy itself and replicate the information needed to make the virus. So the virus dies,” he added.
The Pfizer pill messes with the virus’s protein.
“It’s what’s referred to as a protease inhibitor. So a protease is needed to break down proteins in order for the virus to then build itself back up and this pill stops that from happening and it’s specific to SARS-CoV-2,” said Dr. David Berger, Certified Pediatrician at Wholistic Pediatrics and Family Care.
That makes it difficult for the virus to replicate in your body.
“This is a really, really good thing to have that we have now a one, two punch, a left hook and a right hook to really go after the virus,” said Unnasch.
Researchers are working to get more data but so far experts say because of how both pills work, they can likely fight the omicron variant too, and others that may follow.
“The really cool thing about this from what I’m reading is that the different variants shouldn’t make a difference. Now the mutations that are being seen in the variants are changes in the spike protein and the spike protein is what gets into our cells and what the vaccines are currently based upon. This is about the general replication of the virus itself and so it shouldn’t make a difference one variant to another,” said Berger.
Advisers to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration voted this week to recommend emergency use authorization of Merck’s pill.
Data shows it can reduce the risk that someone will get severe COVID-19 or death by 30%.
However, experts still have questions about potential birth defects if a pregnant woman were to take Merck’s pill.
Health officials say the risk for birth defects hasn’t been adequately studied enough yet.
Most experts stressed it shouldn’t be used by anyone who is pregnant at this point and asked the FDA to recommend extra precautions before the drug is prescribed, like having women of childbearing age take a pregnancy test.
If authorization is granted, Merck’s pill would become the first oral antiviral treatment to fight COVID-19.
Pfizer has also applied for authorization of its COVID-19 pill, the FDA panel hasn’t reviewed it yet.
So far though, health experts say the data looks promising.
“What they’re showing is it’s reducing hospitalization overall by 89%. And in a study that was done there were zero people who died who caught COVID who had taken the pill,” said Berger.
Both medications require people to take multiple pills twice a day for five days. They could be taken at home to treat COVID-19.
The Biden administration has agreed to purchase both drugs if they get emergency use authorization.
With the threat of the spread of COVID-19, doctors say more treatments are needed and researchers believe these pills could have a big impact on the pandemic.
“All of these are really only effective if you get treatment early before you let that virus really get out of hand,” said Unnasch.
“If you are positive, go to a site right away and get yourself one of these early treatments, if you do that chances are you’re going to be just fine,” he added.