Coronavirus: Race on to develop pill to fight COVID-19 symptoms, NZ health officials want more evidence

The Ministry of Health is not yet convinced New Zealand is ready for a pill to fight COVID-19 symptoms.

Australia's federal government is understood to be days away from signing a deal with a drug company to supply an antiviral pill, but officials here still want more evidence.  

The race is on around the globe to perfect an antiviral COVID pill to make us less infectious. 

"They're focusing on people at higher risk, and seeing whether it has an impact on how sick they get - it's had some real promising results to date," says Nancy Baxter of Melbourne University.

There are suggestions Australia's federal government is considering a deal with at least one undisclosed drug supplier - and there are plenty of options.

Molnupiravir, initially developed for influenza, is in clinical trials, and big-hitter Merck has a billion-dollar offer from the US government if the oral drug gets approved. 

Pfizer's twice-daily COVID tablet is also in late-stage testing, with the company so confident that it's already started production.

"We are going full speed with all trials for this antiviral and we are manufacturing," says Pfizer chief executive Albert Boula.

Pfizer's pill doesn't just target the inflammatory and immune response if you become infected, it targets the virus itself. The company says it could be available by the end of the year, reducing the amount of time a person is infectious, reducing the severity of that infection and potentially keeping them out of the hospital.

"The Ministry of Health continues to closely monitor developments in treatments that can aid recovery, or help prevent the need for hospital treatment, from COVID-19" says NZ Ministry of Health chief science advisor Ian Town.

He says so far, after significant research across the globe, "there is not yet a specific and effective antiviral treatment for the virus ... should there be a promising treatment that fits with the likely scenarios facing New Zealand in future, the Ministry would work with Pharmac and Medsafe to obtain supplies".

But a leading New Zealand medical expert doubts we'll see drug companies pushing to make anti-viral Covid pills available here as it's too small a market. 

"And Pharmac might also decide the return from the drug, because you are going to have to give it to hundreds of people to benefit half a dozen or a dozen, is not worth the cost," says Auckland University associate professor Mark Thomas.

The latest line of defence in the COVID fight could well be out of our reach for the time being.  

Kiwi scientists are working on antiviral compounds to work against COVID-19 but it's early days.

The idea of popping a COVID pill was easy to swallow for a number of freshly vaccinated Kiwis Newshub spoke to on Monday, but medical experts suggest New Zealand is too small a market for the bigger drug companies to peddle the pill.