“Today is a historic day for our country, because the UK is now the first country in the world to approve an antiviral against COVID-19 that can be taken at home,” Health Minister Sajid Javid said in a statement. “This will be a game changer for the most vulnerable and immunosuppressed, who will soon be able to receive the revolutionary treatment,” he added.

The Medicines Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said in a statement that the drug is “safe and effective in reducing the risk of hospital admission and death in people with mild to moderate covid who are at extra risk”.

The United Kingdom is thus ahead of the United States, where authorities are expected to decide this month whether to authorize use of the tablets.

Antivirals, such as molnupiravir, work by reducing the ability of the virus to reproduce, thus slowing down the disease. The use of this drug can be twofold: both to prevent those infected from suffering severe symptoms and to prevent those who have been in close contact from developing the disease. If administered to patients in the days following a positive diagnostic test, it reduces the chances of hospitalization by 50%, according to a clinical trial conducted by Merck. It has not yet said precisely when the drug will be available.

In October, a Merck statement announced that the company had closed preliminary agreements to sell, once officially authorized, molnupiravir in such strategic markets as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea, in addition to other countries with which it is “in discussions”.

It also announced that it intends to market the drug at variable prices depending on the country, based on income criteria established by the World Bank, and an agreement is underway with an Indian company to produce molnupiravir locally.

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