'A major milestone': Pfizer's COVID pill is a huge step forward — but it will be 'scarce' at first

'A major milestone': Pfizer's COVID pill is a huge step forward — but it will be 'scarce' at first
(U.S. Army photo by Luis A. Deya)

U.S Army critical care nurses 1st Lt. Charles Gilcrist and 1st Lt. Lauryn Hudgins from Urban Augmentation Medical Task Force - 627 work to provide medical care to a COVID-19 patient alongside Baptist Hospital medical staff, in San Antonio, Texas, July 10, 2020.

The United States on Wednesday authorized Pfizer Inc’s antiviral COVID-19 pill for at-risk people aged 12 and above, making it the first oral treatment and which can be taken at home, providing a potentially important tool in the fight against the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

Pfizer’s antiviral regimen, Paxlovid, was nearly 90 percent effective in preventing hospitalizations and deaths in patients at high risk of severe illness, according to data from the company’s clinical trial. Recent lab data suggests the drug retains its effectiveness against Omicron, Pfizer said.

“We’re talking about a staggering number of lives saved and hospitalizations prevented. And of course, if you deploy this quickly after infection, we are likely to reduce transmission dramatically,” Pfizer Chief Scientific Officer Mikael Dolsten said, calling it “a stunning outcome.”

Pfizer raised its 2022 production projections to 120 million courses of treatment from 80 million and said it was ready to start immediate delivery in the United States. The treatment’s two-drug regimen includes a new medicine and a second older antiviral called ritonavir.

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“Paxlovid’s approval is a major milestone that marks another step towards making COVID-19 a much more manageable infection,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Health Security.

“There are two key issues, however, that remain: It will be scarce in the coming weeks and its optimal use requires prompt diagnosis, which can be difficult with the continual testing problems that plague us,” Adalja added.

Pfizer has said it has 180,000 treatment courses ready to ship this year. The U.S. government’s contract for 10 million courses of the drug is priced at $530 per course.

The Food and Drug Administration’s decision to issue emergency authorization for the treatment comes as the U.S. combats a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the Omicron variant, with President Joe Biden announcing plans for more federal vaccination and testing sites.

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The pills can fill a treatment gap opened by the Omicron variant, said William Schaffner, a leading infectious disease expert from the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. The most widely used monoclonal antibody treatments for COVID-19 have proven to be less effective at fighting the variant and there is limited supply of the one remaining treatment that works, he said.

Monoclonal antibodies are typically given intravenously in hospitals, are not widely available and are more than twice the cost of the Pfizer pill.

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