Pfizer said Friday that its easy-to-use Covid-19 pill, used in combination with a widely used HIV medication, reduces the risk of hospitalization or death by 89% in high-risk adults exposed to the virus.
It is now the second antiviral pill after Merck to show high efficacy for treating Covid at the first sign of illness. If allowed by regulators, it is likely to be a game changer in the ongoing global fight against the pandemic.
Pfizer CEO Albert Burla told CNBC that the company plans to submit its data to the FDA before Thanksgiving.
“I think this drug will change what is happening right now, which will save millions and millions of lives, it has the potential to do so,” Burla said in an interview with CNBC’s Squawk Box. He said the company has “a capacity of 500 million pills at the moment,” which he said corresponds to 50 million procedures. “The very high efficiency comes as a surprise even to us and exceeds our most far-sighted expectations.”
The company’s shares jumped about 8% in morning trading.
The Pfizer tablet, known scientifically as PF-07321332, is part of a class of drugs called protease inhibitors and works by inhibiting an enzyme that the virus needs to replicate in human cells. Protease inhibitors are used to treat other viral pathogens such as HIV and hepatitis C.
According to the company, the HIV drug helps slow the metabolism or breakdown of Pfizer tablets so that they remain active in the body for longer periods of time at higher concentrations.
The company said its drug data is based on a mid-to-late study of 1,219 adults who had at least one underlying medical condition and laboratory-confirmed infection over a five-day period. The participants were also given a low dose of ritonavir, a drug commonly used in combination HIV treatment.
Of the 607 trial participants who received the pill in combination with an HIV medication within five days of symptom onset, Pfizer said there were six hospitalizations and zero deaths. By comparison: 41 hospitalizations and 10 deaths out of 612 people who received placebo.
“These data show that our oral antiviral candidate, if approved by regulatory agencies, could save patient lives, reduce the severity of COVID-19 infections and eliminate up to nine out of ten hospitalizations,” said Pfizer CEO Albert Burla. in the statement.
Unlike Gilead Sciences’ intravenous remdesivir, Pfizer and Merck can be taken by mouth. While vaccinations remain the best form of protection against the virus, health experts hope such pills will prevent the disease from progressing in those who are actually infected and prevent travel to the hospital.
On October 1, Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics said they have developed a drug that, when used alone, reduces the risk of hospitalization or death by about 50% for patients with mild to moderate cases of Covid.
The antiviral pill, manufactured by Merck, was approved by the UK drug regulator on Thursday.
June Raine, executive director of the UK’s Medicines and Health Products Regulatory Agency, said Merck pills would greatly ease the treatment of Covid, a disease that has killed more than 5 million people worldwide and has put a huge strain on health systems.
Burla told CNBC in April that Pfizer pills could be available to Americans by the end of this year.
Rich Mendes of CNBC contributed to this article.