Merck antiviral pill cuts COVID hospitalization risk in half: study

An experimental drug prevented half of COVID-19 infections that would otherwise have sent people to the hospital, according to a study released Friday, offering promise that the virus could soon be treated by a pill.

The antiviral drug molnupiravir, made by Merck & Co. and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics of Miami, was given to 385 people within five days of their diagnosis with COVID-19. Another 377 volunteers who tested positive were given a placebo. All participants had at least one risk factor for severe COVID-19.

Of the participants who received molnupiravir, 7.3% were hospitalized during the monthlong trial. In the placebo group, 14% were hospitalized and 8 of them died.

The study was supposed to enroll another 750 participants, but an independent monitoring board decided the drug was so effective it would be unethical to continue giving anyone a placebo.

Since early in the pandemic, public health officials have hoped for effective antivirals that could help prevent severe infection in people exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Several existing drugs were tested against the virus early on but shown to have no benefit for patients. Other types therapies authorized in the United States to treat COVID-19 require an IV or injection.

These findings about molnupiravir suggest it is even more effective against SARS-CoV-2 than Tamiflu, a commonly used antiviral, is against influenza, said Dr. Dean Y. Li, president of Merck Research Laboratories.

The company plans to apply for emergency use authorization as quickly as possible.

– Karen Weintraub

Also in the news:

►A group of teachers asked the Supreme Court on Thursday for an emergency injunction blocking implementation of New York City’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for public schools staff.

►Americans are getting vaccinated at the lowest rates yet this year, a USA TODAY analysis of CDC data shows. The U.S. is giving first-dose COVID vaccinations to fewer than 1.5 million people each week, down from a peak of nearly 14 million in mid-April.

Almost half of parents with children between ages 12 and 17 said their child has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey found. About one third of surveyed parents with children between ages 5 and 11 said they would vaccinate their child “right away” once a vaccine is authorized for them.

►Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb renewed the state’s public health emergency order for the 19th time on Thursday.

►Primetta Giacopini, a California resident who survived the 1918 flu, died due to COVID-19. She was 105. 

►Health officials in Michigan’s Livingston County are warning of a possible COVID-19 outbreak after a Luke Bryant concert earlier this month. Officials say 27 people who attended the country music concert have tested positive since the show. 

📈Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 43 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 697,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 233 million cases and 4.7 million deaths. More than 184 million Americans — 55% of the population — are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

📘What we’re reading: As Qamil Wright struggled with intense coronavirus symptoms throughout August, she briefly questioned if she would ever perform again. 

Keep refreshing this page for the latest news. Want more? Sign up for USA TODAY’s Coronavirus Watch newsletter to receive updates directly to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh tested positive for COVID-19 just days before the justices were set to return to the courtroom to begin a new term, the court announced Friday.

Kavanaugh, who along with the other Supreme Court justices has been vaccinated, is not experiencing symptoms, the court said. He was tested Thursday ahead of an investiture ceremony for Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett set for Friday. 

All of the nine justices were tested Monday morning before their conference where they meet to discuss cases for the coming term and all tested negative, including Kavanaugh, the court said. Court officials said Kavanaugh would not attend Barrett’s investiture ceremony.

– John Fritze

With 56,662 reported deaths by COVID-19, the United States’ September was more than twice as deadly as its August. It was far deadlier than June, July and August combined.

America fared slightly better on cases, with 4.14 million cases reported compared to August’s 4.28 million. The numbers made September America’s fifth deadliest month of the entire pandemic, and the fifth-worst for cases.

The deaths were worse in the South and America’s outlying territories. Florida reported 10,448 deaths and Texas reported 8,159 deaths, each about twice as many as August’s. Florida’s deaths were about 90% worse than the previous month on record.

Hawaii and Alaska also set records and saw about a 58% worse death toll than their previous worst months.

– Mike Stucka

The NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball all have required certain key employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, especially those who might come into close contact with their most important assets – the players. But the one big exception: the players themselves.

Players unions have opposed or avoided such vaccine mandates in what has become a delicate subject in pro sports.

Some, including former NBA Players Association executive director Charles Grantham, say players union leadership is failing its members if it isn’t pushing for vaccine mandates.

Others see it differently. In these cases, vaccine mandates for players would have to be collectively bargained between league management and the players unions. Players unions have fought to win other rights and benefits in collective bargaining, and they generally don’t want to give an inch for a shot if it means league management might start to think it can take a mile later for something else.

 Read more here.

– Brent Schrotenboer

A group representing school board members around the country asked President Joe Biden on Thursday for federal assistance to investigate and stop threats made over policies, including mask mandates, likening the vitriol to a form of domestic terrorism.

The request by the National School Boards Association demonstrates the level of unruliness that has engulfed local education meetings across the country during the pandemic, with board members regularly confronted and threatened by angry protesters.

“Whatever you feel about masks, it should not reach this level of rhetoric,” NSBA Interim Executive Director Chip Slaven told The Associated Press by phone.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said responsibility for protecting school boards falls largely to local law enforcement but “we’re continuing to explore if more can be done from across the administration.”

The association asked for the federal government to get involved to investigate cases where threats or violence could be handled as violations of federal laws protecting civil rights. It also asked for the Justice Department, FBI, Homeland Security and Secret Service to help monitor threat levels and assess risks to students, educators, board members and school buildings.

Domestic flyers within the United States may soon need to prove they’re likely COVID-free if a proposed bill Wednesday becomes law.

The U.S. Air Travel Public Safety Act, introduced by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, would require all U.S. passengers to be fully vaccinated, fully recovered or test negative for the coronavirus before boarding a domestic flight. 

“We know that air travel during the 2020 holiday season contributed to last winter’s devastating COVID-19 surge,” Feinstein said in a Wednesday news release. “We simply cannot allow that to happen again.”

While testing and or showing proof of vaccination is common for international air travel, domestic U.S. air passengers do not go through the same level of scrutiny. 

The bill could face an uphill battle to becoming law despite Democrats, many of whom are behind COVID-19 related mandates, holding a slight majority in Congress.

– Bailey Schulz, Dawn Gilbertson and Christal Hayes 

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