Japan has approved for the first time an oral medication for people with mild or medium COVID-19 symptoms.
U.S. pharmaceutical Merck & Co.'s Molnupiravir is intended for people aged 18 and over with a high risk of developing severe symptoms. One of the drug's big merits is that it can be taken at home.
Until now, medication for treating COVID-19 has required administration of IV drips and injections from doctors. It is hoped that Molnupiravir's approval will lead to a reduced burden for health care providers.
The medication is effective against the omicron variant, while the already-in-use antibody cocktail treatment method is not. Some doctors have said that it will become one of the primary methods for treating COVID-19.
According to analysis from Merck & Co, prescribing the medication can reduce the need for hospitalization and risk of death by some 30%.
The Japanese government has already obtained 1.6 million doses of the drug, and has begun supplying it to medical institutions and pharmacies. But opinion on its efficacy is split, and countries including France have canceled procurement.
In animal testing, defects were seen in embryos, and it has been said the drug may affect the development of bones and cartilage. For this reason, pregnant women and children cannot use it.
To improve efficacy, a system of delivery matching the medicine's characteristics is necessary.
Use of the medication must begin within five days of the onset of symptoms. But if infections numbers rise dramatically, testing and diagnosis won't be able to keep up, and there could be cases where prescriptions are issued late.
The government plans to do online diagnosis sessions, and have pharmacies deliver the drug to patients. To stop the system getting clogged, careful preparations are needed.
People who take the medication but experience no effects, and end up developing serious cases of COVID-19, must not be overlooked. Thorough patient progress observation and a response that leads to quick hospitalizations is indispensable.
Pfizer Inc. and Shionogi & Co. are also progressing with the development of oral medications for people with mild COVID-19 symptoms, and they are expected to apply for approval soon. Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare Shigeyuki Goto has raised expectations, saying the medications will "become the trump card for ensuring that people can live safely."
But oral medication is not an all-purpose solution. In preparation for a widespread omicron variant outbreak, in addition to infection prevention measures, a full rollout of booster vaccination shots and preparation of the health care system cannot be neglected.