Pfizer on Friday presented a pill that reduces the risk of death from COVID-19 by almost 90% for those infected with co-morbidities, a promising result that its executives believe will lead to a "turning point" in the fight against the pandemic.
The drugmaker revealed in a statement preliminary data from a 1,219-person study showing the effectiveness of its pill in preventing patients at high risk of severe COVID-19 illness - including the unvaccinated - from needing hospitalisation or death.
The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, concludes that patients who took Pfizer's pill along with another antiviral had an 89% reduction in their combined rate of subsequent hospitalisation or death, compared to patients taking placebo.
The company gave volunteers the experimental drug every 12 hours for five days in different groups, starting three and five days after they had symptoms, and combined it with a low dose of the antiviral ritonavir, which is commonly used to treat HIV and acts as a booster.
After 28 days, no patients in the overall study who had received Pfizer's treatment had died, compared to 10 who did after receiving placebo, according to the note.
Pfizer's Latin American medical director for the Hospital Products Unit, Rafael Valdez, told EFE news agency that the study results represent a "turning point" if a "joint strategy" of vaccines, antivirals, preventive measures such as the face mask and case follow-up is followed.
"Having a drug that can prevent hospitalisations and contribute to preventing deaths is undoubtedly a very important turning point in the pandemic and allows us to make a different projection of the impact the disease will have on certain populations," he said.
The "overwhelming effectiveness" of the preliminary data led independent experts to recommend that Pfizer stop seeking more participants, and now plans to submit the data to the US Food and Drug Administration "as soon as possible" for emergency use.
The pill "blocks" the activity of a specific enzyme that the coronavirus needs to replicate in the infected body, a mechanism similar to the pill developed by another big pharma company, MSD (Merck in the US and Canada), although with apparently much higher effectiveness.
The molecule used in Pfizer's pill, Valdez explained, was designed to treat the SARS virus in 2003 and "is expected to have an effect against all variants" of the coronavirus that may emerge.
"Today's news is truly a turning point in global efforts to stem the devastation of this pandemic," agreed the company's top executive, Albert Bourla, who pointed to the drug's potential to "eliminate nine out of ten hospitalisations".
The company's vision is for the pill to be "widely prescribed as a home treatment to reduce the severity of illness, hospitalisations and deaths, as well as reduce the likelihood of infection following exposure among adults," according to the release.
The announcement came a day after MSD won UK approval for its antiviral pill, Molnupiravir, which is 50% effective in preventing hospitalisations and deaths and has been under review by the US regulator for almost a month.
Pfizer, the world's leading producer of vaccines that protect against COVID-19, has thus joined the race to obtain easily administered treatments for those who become infected, a problem in which speed after the onset of symptoms, which are linked to viral load, is essential.
According to Valdés, the drugmaker is also studying a pill for COVID-19 patients with "standard risk", without comorbidities, and also another drug to treat people who have been in contact with a positive person to see "if the chain of infection can be cut and prevent them from expressing symptoms".
According to the Washington Post, Pfizer has already begun manufacturing the drug and plans to produce more than 180,000 packs of pills by the end of this year, rising to 21 million in the first half of 2021.