The promise of new Covid-19 pills from Pfizer Inc. and Merck & Co. gives rise to the hopeful question: Is this how the pandemic ends? The best answer anyone can muster is “maybe.” No matter how effective the antiviral pills are, it will be months before we can say we’re near the end.
The pills have been shown in studies to substantially reduce the chances that a high-risk, unvaccinated person with Covid will need hospitalization. The results rightly raised hopes. Pfizer’s drug was 89% effective, and Merck’s succeeded in about 50% of patients—potentially powerful scientific breakthroughs.
Yet right around this time last year, we were celebrating another astounding scientific achievement: Pfizer and Moderna Inc. announced vaccine results that were even more remarkable, both in how well the shots worked and how quickly they’d been developed. Of course plenty more devastation followed. More Americans have died of Covid so far in 2021 than in 2020, despite the widespread availability of shots. A problematic mutation, low vaccination rates, and patchy adherence to preventive measures such as masking allowed the virus to rage on. Weary forecasters won’t bring themselves to say Covid pills will stop the virus, at least not yet.
The new treatments have limitations. The pills were mainly tested in high-risk, unvaccinated people and proved useful only for people who learn they’ve contracted Covid and get a prescription filled within days of exhibiting symptoms. But testing isn’t always that quick, and the unvaccinated—the most likely to get Covid and need the pills—may not prove eager to get tested.
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