SALISBURY TWP., Pa. - New Jersey-based Merck says it has created an oral antiviral medicine that it says cuts in half the risk of hospitalization or death from COVID-19.

So how does it work, and when would it be available?

If cleared by the Food and Drug Administration, Merck could be the first to put out a pill to treat COVID-19.

"It decreased the risk of hospitalizations and death by 50%, so pretty impressive," said Dr. Amy Slenker, infectious disease specialist at Lehigh Valley Health Network.

It could potentially be the next major step in controlling the virus, and it might become available soon.

"Merck is going to file an emergency use authorization with the FDA, so there is a potential this medication could be available for this group within the next few weeks," Slenker said.

So how does it work?

"It essentially embeds itself into the virus that's trying to build and it stops it from replicating," Slenker said.

And who will it become available to?

"All of the patients in this trial were unvaccinated and high risk for getting severe COVID-19 infection, so this isn't a pill for everybody," Slenker said.

If cleared, the pill will most likely be used selectively in unvaccinated, high-risk patients.

"Merck did an interim analysis in their phase 3 trial, meaning the trial in a lot of people, 775, and they stopped it early because they saw promising results," Slenker explained.

In the meantime, health officials say vaccinations will remain the top strategy as studies will continue before opening up for broader use.

"This was an international clinical trial that they did, so they had sites all over the world, so they have some far reach, so we get a really good view how this works in different patient populations all over the globe," Slenker said.

The next steps for Merck will be to apply to the FDA for emergency use authorization as soon as possible.

If approved, rollout could begin immediately for those in the high-risk category.

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