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Opinion New covid-19 treatments give the world what it has longed for: Hope

Covid-19 treatment pills called molnupiravir, developed by Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics. (Merck & Co Inc/Via Reuters)

The world has lived in fear of covid-19 for more than a year and a half. News that two new pills that can treat patients suffering from the virus at home gives us what we’ve long wanted: hope.

The coronavirus pandemic arose primarily because medical science knew little about the pathogen unleashed on the world. The earliest caseload spiral was always going to tax health systems because of the sheer number of patients coming for help. Once the initial surge abated, controlling the virus required a two-pronged approach: We needed to find ways to reduce the number of people who contracted it, and we needed to discover ways to treat the people who did.

The development and production of vaccines at unprecedented speeds have largely solved the first challenge. While too many remain unvaccinated, enough people have received the shots to make uncontrolled transmission largely a thing of the past in regions with large shares of vaccinated people. Breakthrough cases exist and boosters will probably be necessary to maintain protection against the disease, but on the whole, a vaccinated population significantly reduces the demand for hospitalization and emergency treatment.

The second challenge is being solved by advanced medical treatment for those who contract the virus. Doctors have previously discovered drugs that can be administered intravenously, increasing survival rates and decreasing the time sick patients need to spend in a hospital bed. Now, Merck and Pfizer have tested pills that can be prescribed and taken at home to treat the disease. Merck’s pill, which reportedly cuts the chances of hospitalization in half, received approval for use in Britain this week. Pfizer claims its treatment reduces the chance of hospitalization and death by 89 percent, though the trial data has yet to be peer reviewed or made public.

These two developments are potential game-changers. If people who become infected can be treated at home, hospitals can reserve scarce beds for the most seriously ill. That would dramatically reduce the risk of dying, as sick patients would be more likely to receive the treatment they need on a timely basis. Coupled with continued medical advances that improve survival rates, we are fast approaching a time when covid-19 is an endemic disease much like other respiratory viruses. People will still contract the virus and die, but most people who get it will survive and health systems will not be overwhelmed.

This, in turn, means the public has turned the corner. Instead of cowering in fear, we can start to resume our normal lives comforted by the knowledge that science has our backs. The risk from covid-19 won’t be appreciably greater than those we face otherwise in daily life.

Many people — who have become ingrained to fear — will be wary of this news and will want to maintain measures such as social distancing and masking. But, as states that imposed strict versions of these measures know, they are far from perfect and do not guarantee that the virus will stop spreading. Indeed, public health officials have raised concerns about the effectiveness of cloth masks in preventing transmission, recommending N95 masks instead.

What we need is a return to normalcy. President Biden can start to publicize the good news about treatments. If the Food and Drug Administration finds that either at-home pill merits approval, the president can push the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to promote this new treatment to medical professionals and put the federal purse behind buying enough pills to make sure they are widely available. Governors and their public health professionals can follow suit and echo the good news.

Biden can also stop mollycoddling school districts that halt in-person instruction at the drop of a hat, given that students rarely suffer serious consequences from the disease. This would be especially true if teachers could now receive quick, effective treatment if they are infected.

Biden came into office seeking to emulate Franklin D. Roosevelt — the man who transformed America in the midst of the Great Depression. But FDR told a nation reeling from four years of deepening disaster that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Meanwhile, Biden has been a pale imitation of Dr. Doom, always emphasizing the danger and the risks ahead. The pills give him a chance to reverse course and duplicate FDR’s greatest accomplishment: turning despair into hope.