The new drug-linked mutations were discovered by American and British researchers. These new variants haven't been studied closely enough to figure out if they are more immune-evasive or lethal, but their very existence has highlighted what some scientists say are potential risks in the wider use of the drug – the spread of even more contagious and health-threatening mutations of COVID-19.
Lagevrio works by mutating the genome of SARS-CoV-2 to prevent the virus from being able to replicate within a person's body, reducing the chances it will cause severe illness. But scientists have warned from the very beginning that, by virtue of how the drug works, it could have the opposite effect and create new mutations that could easily bypass the immune protections people may have. (Related: Merck's COVID antiviral drug molnupiravir a USELESS DUD, study finds.)
The researchers looked at some 13 million viral genome databases around the world. The mutations caused by Lagevrio were more commonly found in countries and regions where the drug was used, especially in the United States and Australia, where it was introduced early. But places like Canada and France, where the drug was not used, did not have the signature mutations in abundance.
"These effects are visible in these databases," said Theo Sanderson, a geneticist from the Francis Crick Institute in London and the leader of the study. "It appears that people are being treated, some of them aren't clearing their infections, and some are passing them on."
"There's always been this underlying concern that it could contribute to a problem generating new variants," warned Jonathan Li, a virologist at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "This has largely been hypothetical, but this preprint validates a lot of those concerns."
Merck disputed the view that Lagevrio is causing the creation of problematic variants, with a spokesperson claiming no evidence has surfaced that any problematic mutations have spread to the public.
"There is no evidence to indicate that any antiviral agent has contributed to the emergence of circulating variants," wrote spokesperson Robert Josephson in an email in response to questions raised regarding the study. "Based on available data, we do not believe that Lagevrio (molnupiravir) is likely to contribute to the development of new, meaningful coronavirus variants."
Josephson noted that the study authors made a broad, unsubstantiated assumption that the mutations are associated with molnupiravir treatment but do not provide any direct proof that the mutations arose in patients who took Lagevrio.
The spokesperson claimed that the researchers drew their conclusions from "circumstantial associations between viral sequence origin and timeframe of sequence collection in countries where molnupiravir is available."
Ryan Hisner, an independent researcher who helped write the study, noted that the risk of drug-linked mutations is far too great to continue using Lagevrio and the U.S. should consider discontinuing its use.
"It's a very distressing situation," said Michael Lin, an antiviral drug researcher from Stanford University who was consulted on the study. "There's no evidence that any of these mutants is worse in any way – not yet – but it's well agreed that you're playing with fire if you're creating random mutations and hoping nothing bad will come of it."
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Watch this clip from InfoWars as host Harrison Smith talks about how a top virologist believes the post-vaccine omicron variant of COVID-19 could have been created by Merck's antiviral COVID-19 pill, molnupiravir.