WASHINGTON (AP) — Pharmaceutical company Merck says its experimental COVID-19 pill reduced hospitalizations and deaths by half in people recently infected with the coronavirus. The company said it would soon ask health officials in the U.S. and around the world to authorize its use. Merck’s drug would be the first pill shown to treat COVID-19, a potentially major advance in efforts to fight the pandemic. The study results were released by the company and have not been peer reviewed. An independent group of medical advisers monitoring the trial recommended stopping it early because the interim results were so strong.