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COVID pills will not end the pandemic

Pfizer and Merck’s new COVID-19 pills raise a promising question: Is this how the pandemic ends?

The best answer anyone can give is “maybe”. No matter how effective antiviral pills are, it will be months before we can say that we are close to 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 Pfizer drug was 89% effective and Merck was successful in about 50% of patients – powerful scientific breakthroughs.

More Americans have died of COVID so far in 2021 than in 2020, despite the wide availability of vaccines. A problematic mutation, low vaccination rates, and uneven adherence to preventive measures, such as wearing a mask, allowed the virus to spread. Forecasters will not dare to say that COVID pills will stop the virus, at least not yet.

The new treatments have limitations. They tested the pills primarily on high-risk, unvaccinated people and were useful only for those who learned they had contracted COVID and received the prescribed drug within days of showing symptoms. But the tests aren’t always that quick, and the unvaccinated – the ones most likely to get COVID and need the pills – may not be eager to get tested.

Vaccines remain the best way to prevent COVID from occurring and spreading. If people who are suspicious of vaccines can point out that a new drug reduces the threat of disease, they are less likely to get vaccinated. And Pfizer and Merck will have to quickly produce millions, if not billions, of pills if they are to be widely available this coming winter, when cases are projected to rise again.

COVID is still a reality. The pills can lower the death rate and make the virus easier to live with. Still, there are no official criteria to declare the end of a pandemic.

For this, the end could be when a combination of drugs, vaccines and natural immunity is already enough to suppress serious complications from the virus, allowing people to continue with their normal lives without taking precautions.

Now that society is reopening, we may be approaching that point in some parts of the United States, where the virus is not getting worse. Even then, that doesn’t mean that occasional breakouts won’t occur.


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