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Vaccination is key to winning the battle against COVID, former CDC official says

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

All right, well, along with the new developments in boosters, we've had other news in the fight against the pandemic this week. Yesterday, U.S. drugmaker Merck filed for FDA emergency use authorization of its new antiviral pill against COVID. Now, earlier this morning, I spoke with former CDC official Dr. Ali Khan about this new treatment and how it compares to the treatments already being used in hospitals.

ALI KHAN: It differs in a multiple different way. So it's a molnupiravir. It's a repurposed antiviral, a drug that was supposed to be used for influenza, named, surprisingly, after Mjolnir, which is Thor's hammer. And the key difference is it's oral. So this one is a pill. You pop it - two pills a day, five days within the first days of getting ill. And the data looks really good - reduction by half in people who die and get hospitalized.

MARTINEZ: This sounds like a game changer. I mean, am I reading this wrong?

KHAN: That part of it is a game changer. Any way we can - we're in the anti-death business here in public health, so anything that drops deaths are great. I mean - but let me step back a little bit for you, A, here, which is that we still have 20 times more cases than we should have in the United States for controlling community transmission. And giving a booster to people already vaccinated is going to have a marginal difference compared to vaccinating the 68 million people who have never been vaccinated. That's the solution to get this pandemic under control.

MARTINEZ: So I was going to ask you if this pill - if it helps keep people out of ICUs, I'm wondering if it could also give people who are not vaccinated maybe another reason to avoid getting their shots?

KHAN: That is a concern that it may be another reason for people to avoid getting a shot - has been the monoclonal antibodies, the antibody treatment cocktails.

MARTINEZ: Sometimes, do you think, doctor, that all of this information happening all at once like this confuses people?

KHAN: I agree. I think we need to have a laser focus on 68 million people who need to get vaccinated. And it's great news, for those who are vaccinated, there's a booster. It's wonderful news for those who are sick, we have an opportunity to save their lives with the new oral drug. But the focus needs to be on 68 million people who need to get vaccinated. And what are the strategies to get those people vaccinated, get disease down in our community? We still have about 1,700 deaths a day. That's - of a preventable disease, and it's completely unacceptable.

MARTINEZ: Now, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order yesterday that prohibits any entity, including private businesses, from enforcing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate on workers. How does this measure complicate the public messaging around vaccines and mandates?

KHAN: So, A, this is not a public health solution now. This is a political solution with the governor of Texas. We could talk about the governor of Florida and mask mandates in schools, which we know protect kids. It does complicate the messaging. And this is why we need a political solution where every political party in America has the same message - please, get out there. Get vaccinated. Protect yourself, protect your family, protect your neighbors. Let's get our economy back under control. Let's get back to normal.

MARTINEZ: Dr. Ali Khan is dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Doctor, thanks.

KHAN: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.