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Fauci Calls Merck COVID Pill Data 'Impressive'

FILE - Signage is seen at the corporate headquarters of the U.S. pharmaceutical company Merck in Kenilworth, New Jersey, May 1, 2018.
FILE - Signage is seen at the corporate headquarters of the U.S. pharmaceutical company Merck in Kenilworth, New Jersey, May 1, 2018.

Members of the White House COVID-19 Response Team said Friday that recent trials showing the effectiveness of the U.S. drug company Merck's experimental new COVID-19 pill were certainly good news, but they stressed that vaccines would remain the best way to end the pandemic.

During the response team's virtual briefing, top U.S. infectious-disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said early data from the studies on the Merck COVID-19 pill were "impressive," including a 50% reduction in hospitalizations and deaths.

White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeff Zients said the U.S. government had already arranged to buy 1.7 million doses of the pill, with an option for more if needed.

If approved for emergency use, the Merck pill would be the first COVID-19 treatment that could be taken orally and not through injection or intravenous drip. Fauci said he would not predict when the pill might be approved as both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention evaluate the medication.

Vaccinations still seen as best choice

But, Zients said, while the pill is very good news, vaccinations are still the best way out of the pandemic, and the response team spent the bulk of its briefing presenting statistics to encourage the unvaccinated 70 million U.S. residents to take the shot.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said new data from her agency demonstrated the vaccination's value at preventing serious illness. The data, collected in August during the peak of the surge of infections caused by the delta variant of the virus, showed that areas where 55% or less of the total population was vaccinated had more than twice the infection rates of areas with greater vaccine coverage. Hospitalization and death rates also were significantly higher where vaccination rates were lower.

Fauci presented statistics compiled over the past 30 days at hospitals in King County in Washington state, information he said also demonstrated the vaccine's effectiveness against the delta variant. That data showed that unvaccinated people were eight times more likely to test positive for COVID-19, 41 times more likely to be hospitalized from it and 57% more likely to die from it.

Noting the recent overall decline in new cases and hospitalizations in the past few weeks, Fauci said people should not interpret that decline to mean they now did not need to be vaccinated. He said the best way to prevent resurgences of the disease and end the pandemic was to get vaccinated.

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