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Coronavirus Briefing: The new arsenal of drugs

Two new Covid pills are on their way, and they are expected to have a significant impact on how the pandemic plays out in our lives.

The pills — one from Merck and the other from Pfizer — reduce the risk of hospitalization and death if taken early in an infection. If all goes well, the F.D.A. may authorize both of them by year’s end.

In the simplest terms, my colleague Carl Zimmer said, the pair of pills can help turn Covid into a more ordinary respiratory disease, similar to the common cold or the flu. And they may be just the beginning. Scientists say we will need an arsenal of drugs to deploy against new foes — especially if new variants erode the protection of existing vaccines.

“Ideally, if you tested positive for Covid-19, someone could immediately pick up antiviral pills for you at a nearby pharmacy, and you could start taking a course,” Carl said. “Another possibility down the line might be that people at high risk for severe Covid-19 who live in the same house as someone with an infection would get a prescription for pills to take as a preventive measure.”

Both pills prevent the virus from replicating inside the body and are broadly similar to treatments that revolutionized the battle against H.I.V. in the 1990s.

Merck’s drug, molnupiravir, was studied as a treatment for the Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus — a little-known pathogen feared as a potential bioweapon. Trials put the drug’s effectiveness at 30 percent, and experts have discussed its potential for negative side effects, including causing mutations in people’s DNA. Last month, members of a F.D.A. advisory committee recommended authorizing it but expressed strong reservations given the potential side effects.

Pfizer’s drug, known as Paxlovid, may perform much better. It was originally developed to fight the coronavirus that caused SARS, but that epidemic ended before the company could test it in humans. Interim clinical trials of Paxlovid against Covid have shown terrific results: 85 percent effectiveness when taken as instructed.

The pills may have also wider implications than just reducing the worst effects of the virus on the body. They may slow down the spread of the virus more generally because they could wipe it out quickly in a patient, decreasing the chance that it could jump to its next victim, Carl said.

But there’s a catch. For them to work effectively, they must be taken early in an infection — within five days of the start of symptoms — and access to cheap and easy rapid testing is still a challenge in the U.S.

Even when people do manage to get a test, Carl added, “they may not have a regular doctor who can make sure they get pills quickly.”

“When you have a health care system as deeply flawed as ours, it can be hard to take advantage of medical advances,” he said.

As Omicron injects fresh uncertainty into the global economy, two recent patterns offer a mixed outlook for the recovery in the coming months.

Throughout the pandemic, the stock market has been a barometer, tumbling after worrisome milestones and rising on advances in vaccinations and new treatments. Last month, after the discovery of Omicron, stocks tumbled — again.

But the good news, my colleagues Karl Russell and Mohammed Hadi report, is that each bout of pandemic-driven volatility has been shorter than the one before, and followed by a recovery to a new high. As of yesterday, the S&P 500 had recovered nearly all of its losses from the post-Omicron drop. The markets were up again today. The chart below shows the bounce-back compared with previous variants and events.

Credit…Apany News

The other trend is more worrisome. Many low-income Americans who managed to save money at the outset of the pandemic now find their savings dwindling or even depleted, my colleague Talmon Joseph Smith reports. The chart below shows the change in weekly median household checking account balances for low-income Americans.

The drop in savings could have broad economic implications, potentially driving down consumer spending, which is a large share of economic activity.

It may also chip away at the recent increases in worker wages and power. Economists have said that after decades of wage and income stagnation, the burst in savings has eased poverty while giving employees and job seekers more leverage. But as savings diminish, more people may be forced to accept jobs for lower wages.

Supply chains, explained. Here’s a visual look at how the pandemic-driven supply chain crisis unfolded.

We’re continuing to answer your questions about the new variant, including one today that touches on the long-term development of the virus. (If you have a question, you can fill out this form.) Apoorva Mandavilli, who covers science for The Times, provided today’s answer.

I thought as viruses mutate they inherently get weaker. Is this not the case with Covid? — Christa Kaiser, Kennett Square, Pa.

Apoorva: There is a myth out there that a virus always evolves to become milder because it’s to its advantage to keep circulating. Yes, it’s to its advantage, but transmissibility and immune escape are also advantages, and we don’t know exactly why this particular variant got selected. Also, this virus is contagious so early in infection that it can be passed to people well before symptoms appear, so it doesn’t necessarily need to become milder in order to keep circulating.

More answers:

My world has become very small. At the beginning of the pandemic, everyone praised me for handling it so well. I’ve always been introverted, so it wasn’t so hard for me to adjust. In fact, I felt like I had permission to live my life comfortably for the first time. I’ve become an avid gardener and grow native plants from seed now. As time goes on, though, I worry that the pandemic has changed me forever. I no longer want to see the world. I don’t care about trying new foods or missing out on movies. I talk to four people, all of whom I love dearly. But only four. It’s like all the worry skipped my conscious brain and morphed into no more wants. All I seem to want is my couch, a few good conversations, homemade soup and seeds to add to my collection. But is that all I really want? Is this my new normal?

— Emma Powers, Northampton, Mass.

Let us know how you’re dealing with the pandemic. Send us a response here, and we may feature it in an upcoming newsletter.

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Email your thoughts to briefing@nytimes.com.

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