The health ministry is in talks with U.S. pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. to procure an oral COVID-19 medicine developed by the firm for use by those suffering from mild symptoms, sources familiar with the matter said Monday.

The antiviral drug molnupiravir, which prevents the virus from entering or multiplying in the body, can be taken at home unlike existing medicines casirivimab and imdevimab, which are administered intravenously in an "antibody cocktail" treatment, raising hopes that it may reduce the strain on medical facilities.

"An oral drug that can be used at home for those suffering from mild symptoms may be developed by the end of this year, and we are in negotiations for its utilization as soon as it is approved," Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said during a news conference last week.

Merck is set to apply for emergency use of the medicine in the United States, with Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare expected to follow suit by quickly approving the drug once an application for domestic use has been made, the sources said.

The use of molnupiravir was seen to halve the likelihood of hospitalization or death, according to an interim analysis of clinical trials across areas including Japan, Europe and the United States.

A total of 7.3% of people had been admitted to hospital or died on the 29th day after taking the oral drug, compared to 14.1% who had been given a placebo, the firm said.

U.S. pharmaceutical firm Pfizer Inc., Swiss health care company Roche Holding AG and Japan's Shionogi & Co. are also working to develop an oral drug for COVID-19.