Merck’s virus pill significantly less effective in new analysis

This undated file image provided by Merck and Co shows their new antiviral medication molnupiravir. (MERCK AND CO VIA AP)

BRUSSELS / PARIS / NEW YORK / LONDON / JOHANNESBURG / AMSTERDAM / FRANKFURT – Merck & Co said on Friday updated data from its study of its experimental COVID-19 pill showed the drug was significantly less effective in cutting hospitalizations and deaths than previously reported.

The drugmaker said its pill showed a 30 percent reduction in hospitalizations and deaths, based on data from 1,433 patients. In October, its data showed a roughly 50 percent efficacy, based on data from 775 patients. The drug, molnupiravir, was developed with partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics.

The lower efficacy of Merck's drug could have big implications in terms of whether countries continue to buy the pill. Interim data from 1,200 participants in Pfizer Inc's trial for its experimental pill, Paxlovid, showed an 89 percent reduction in hospitalizations and deaths.

Merck's shares fell 3.5 percent to $79.39 in morning trading.

ALSO READ: WHO says new strain is a variant of concern, names it Omicron

Pills like molnupiravir and Paxlovid could be promising new weapons in the fight against the pandemic, as they can be taken as early at-home treatments to help prevent COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths. They could also become important tools in countries and areas with limited access to vaccines or low inoculation rates.

An Air Canada Boeing 787 Dreamliner at Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, on Oct 26, 2021. (CHRISTINNE MUSCHI / BLOOMBERG)

Canada

Canada is following countries in banning foreign nationals from seven southern African nations, amid concerns about the new COVID-19 variant. 

“We are banning the entry of foreign nationals into Canada that have traveled through southern Africa in the last 14 days," said Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos told reporters in Ottawa. 

The seven countries are South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Eswatini.

There are no direct flights from the region into Canada.

People line up to get on the Air France flight to Paris at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa Nov 26, 2021.
(JEROME DELAY / AFP)

European Union 

European Union states have agreed to suspend travel from southern Africa after the detection of a new COVID-19 variant, the presidency of the EU said on Friday.

A committee of health experts from all 27 EU states "agreed on the need to activate the emergency break & impose temporary restriction on all travel into EU from southern Africa", the Slovenian presidency of the EU said on Twitter. 

Restrictions will apply to Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, European Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer said on Twitter.

EU officials said that no decision had yet been made on other countries and regions in other parts of the world where cases were detected, which include Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium, an EU country

An EU official said that EU governments have also been asked to discourage travel to those countries.

Each of the 27 EU country is free to apply the new measures when it prefers. Some are already applying restrictions.

EU officials said that no decision had yet been made on other countries and regions in other parts of the world where cases were detected, which include Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium, an EU country.

The new coronavirus variant, first detected in South Africa, has caused global alarm as researchers seek to find out if it is vaccine-resistant.

Marc Van Ranst, the virologist who detected the new variant in Belgium, told Reuters that it was more likely that the infected woman had contracted the variant in Belgium rather than while travelling outside Europe.

READ MORE: What we know about the new coronavirus variant now spreading

She had been in Egypt earlier in November, but developed symptoms only 11 days after her return to Belgium. She is not vaccinated.

Switzerland imposed on Friday a requirement of 10-day quarantine and a negative test for travelers from Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong, in addition to travel bans on southern African countries.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn said that starting Friday night only German citizens will be allowed to fly back from South Africa, and anyone arriving from there will have to go into quarantine for 14 days, even if they’re vaccinated.

France

Paris has made the wearing of face masks outside mandatory again at public gatherings as the COVID-19 infection rate in the French capital soars, police said.

The police prefecture said in a statement that masks will have to be worn for gathering in public spaces, at festivals and spectacles, on markets and when standing in line.

A woman walks past a café on Black Friday on Nov 26, 2021 in The Hague, Netherlands. (BLOOMBERG)

Netherlands

Dutch health authorities said that 61 people who arrived in Amsterdam on two flights from South Africa on Friday tested positive for COVID-19, and they were conducting further testing early Saturday to see if any of the infections are with the recently discovered Omicron coronavirus variant.

The Dutch government banned all air travel from southern Africa early on Friday. Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said that passengers already en route to the Netherlands would have to undergo testing and quarantine upon arrival.

Meanwhile, the government will force bars and restaurants to close in the evening for the next three weeks, seeking to cap a surge in coronavirus infections.

The country will enter an evening lockdown, with non-essential sites from cinemas to gyms shutting down at 5 pm each day from Sunday. Supermarkets will close from 8 pm, and schools will be unaffected.

The government also announced an extra 2.2 billion-euro program for businesses to ease the impact of the latest measures, including support to pay employee salaries and other fixed costs.

Despite being in a partial lockdown for the past two weeks, the country has failed to stem a jump in infections even though more than two-thirds of the population has had at least two vaccine doses. Throughout the pandemic, a limited capacity of intensive-care beds has created a bottleneck for the country.

Norway

Norway will introduce mandatory quarantine from Saturday for all arrivals from South Africa and six other countries in the region to prevent the spread of the new virus variant, NRK says, citing Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store.

Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna 

BioNTech said on Friday it expects more data on the worrying new coronavirus variant within two weeks to help determine whether its vaccine produced with partner Pfizer would have to be reworked.

Pfizer and BioNTech said that if necessary they expect to be able to ship a new vaccine tailored to the emerging variant in approximately 100 days.

Moderna said in a statement it is working to advance a booster candidate tailored to the new variant and has also been testing a higher dose of its existing booster and to study other booster candidates designed to protect against multiple variants.

South Africa 

In South Africa, virologists have detected almost 100 cases linked to the new variant to date, according to Anne von Gottberg, a clinical microbiologist and head of respiratory diseases at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. 

Meanwhile, wastewater analysis shows that COVID-19 infections are surging in two major metropolitan areas, the South African Medical Research Council said.

The number of virus fragments found in water samples have jumped this month in Tshwane, the municipal area that includes the capital, Pretoria, and in Nelson Mandela Bay, the municipality that governs the coastal city of Gqeberha, the council said.

Tshwane has a population of about 2.9 million, while more than 1.15 million people live in Nelson Mandela Bay.

Health Minister Joe Phaahla said new travel bans imposed on the country after the discovery of the new COVID-19 strain, particularly by the EU, were “unjustified.”

The moves “are completely against the norms and standards” advised by the World Health Organization, Phaahla said during an online press conference. 

United Kingdom

The UK reported 50,091 more coronavirus cases on Friday. According to government statistics, this was the first time since Oct 21 where cases were above 50,000. 

No cases have been related to the new variant, the health department said. 

The country recorded 160 COVID-19 deaths on Friday. The UK’s high vaccination rate has been credited with keeping deaths at a fraction of levels from last winter even with COVID-19 cases persistently high. 

Travelers at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, California, US, on Nov 24, 2021. (DAVID PAUL MORRIS / BLOOMBERG)

United States

President Joe Biden imposed fresh travel restrictions on nations in southern Africa on Friday, joining efforts by other countries to try and slow the spread of the new variant.

The administration will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries starting on Monday, according to senior administration officials. In a statement, Biden called the decision a “precautionary measure until we have more information.” 

In addition to South Africa, the restrictions affect Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. The policy doesn’t apply to American citizens and lawful permanent residents, though they must still test negative before traveling to the US.

No cases of new COVID-19 variant have been identified in the United States to date, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.