The United Kingdom has approved Merck’s antiviral pill, Molnupiravir, making the country the first in the world to approve the COVID-19 antiviral pill, jointly developed by Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics.

The Molnupiravir is the first oral antiviral treatment for COVID-19 to be approved, which is a most welcome and game-changing move in the fight against the pandemic.

On Thursday, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) recommended that the drug be used immediately, upon confirmation of positive COVID-19 status, and within five days of the onset of symptoms.

Prior to this development, the only treatments available to tackle the pandemic had been focused majorly on vaccines, while other treatments included Gilead’s infused antiviral remdesivir and generic steroid dexamethasone which were mostly only administered after a patient had been hospitalised.

A lot of attention has been given to the antiviral pill, Molnupiravir, since data last month showed that it had the potential of reducing the chances of death or being hospitalised by 50% for those who were most at risk of developing severe COVID-19 when given early in the illness.

The drug will be branded “Lagevrio” in the United Kingdom and is designed to introduce errors into the genetic code of the virus that causes COVID-19. It is to be taken twice a day for five days.

The treatment is also in a late-stage trial, where it is being studied for preventing infection. According to Merck, viral sequencing done so far has shown that the drug is effective against all variants of the coronavirus, including the highly infectious Delta strain.

Information on how the treatment will be deployed to patients will be announced by the UK government and the country’s National Health Service (NHS). However, last month, UK authorities made a deal with Merck to secure 480,000 courses of Molnupiravir.

The Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, in a statement on Twitter, said they are working at pace across the government and with the NHS to set out plans to deploy molnupiravir to patients through a national study as soon as possible.