An antiviral pill showing promising signs of slashing COVID-19 deaths and hospitalisations is set to be available in Australia next year pending regulatory approval.
Health Minister Greg Hunt anticipates molnupiravir, being trialled in the US, could be rolled out in Australia as early as the first quarter of 2022.
Manufacturer Merck has been invited to apply to have the antiviral drug approved for use by the Therapeutic Goods Administration.
“An oral pill is obviously a much easier means of helping people,” Mr Hunt said on Monday.
“These would be made available on the basis of need right across the country.
“We’re in advanced discussions with a variety of different [drug] makers.”
The drug company earlier announced trial results showing the treatment reduced hospitalisations and deaths by around 50 per cent.
Meanwhile, Australia has received 15,000 additional doses of the antibody treatment sotrovimab, which is used to stop the virus replicating.
The national stockpile of the drug, administered by intravenous infusion within five days of patients developing symptoms, is expected to exceed 30,000 doses in 2021.
It has been shown to reduce hospitalisation or death in patients with mild or moderate infections and who are at high risk of severe illness.
“It helps activate the body and its immune system to fight against COVID,” Mr Hunt said.
“In many cases it will mean the difference between hospitalisation or no hospitalisation, ICU or no ICU, and in some cases it will prevent the loss of life.”
While vaccines remain the first port of call for beating coronavirus, University of South Australia epidemiologist Adrian Esterman has emphasised the importance of finding new treatments.
“There has been not much emphasis placed on research into treatment since the start of this pandemic,” Professor Esterman told AAP.
“Even with 100 per cent of the population fully vaccinated, there will still be virus circulating because none of the vaccines is 100 per cent effective against transmission.”
At the same time, ensuring the world is vaccinated will drastically reduce the severity of the disease and the need for treatment.
“It’s early days yet for the treatments and we’re still waiting for many of the trials to complete to see what other treatments are potentially helpful against coronavirus,” he said.
“Over the next few years, we can see ongoing improvements in vaccine technology, in particular to handle these different variants, and this could be a constant battle between new variants of vaccines.”
Victoria confirmed 1377 local virus cases and four deaths on Monday, as Melbourne becomes the world’s most locked down city following 246 days of stay-at-home orders.
NSW had 623 new cases and six more fatalities, as the state edges closer to ending lockdown for fully vaccinated residents.
NSW has double-dosed 67 per cent of its population aged 16 and older, while Victoria has a 52 per cent full vaccination rate.
The ACT recorded 28 new cases and two more deaths, taking Canberra’s death toll since the start of the pandemic to eight.
Queensland recorded one new infection in the community.
The sunshine state’s full vaccination rate of 48 per cent is the second-lowest in the country next to Western Australia.