COVID antivirals can save lives, but access is still limited. Biden announces plan to change that.

The public is not getting the full benefit of antiviral drugs to treat COVID-19, so the Biden administration announced plans Tuesday to expand access to the medications.

The antiviral Paxlovid, from Pfizer, was in short supply at the beginning of the year when COVID-19 rates were spiking, so doctors got used to rationing it to their most vulnerable patients. But now, with plenty of Paxlovid to go around, people are still getting very ill and dying who might be saved by the medication, administration officials said in a late Monday briefing.

So the administration has committed to providing more public and medical education, more doses and more centers where the antivirals will be available.

Paxlovid has been shown to be effective at keeping high-risk COVID-19 patients out of the hospital. With more than 40% of Americans fitting the “high-risk” category because of conditions such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease, many more people should be getting the drugs, the administration officials said.

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The challenge is that antivirals must be given within five days of COVID-19 symptoms appearing – and it’s hard for many people to recognize their symptoms, get tested, get the test results, find a medical provider, get a prescription and fill that prescription all within a handful of days.

The administration plans to open more “test-to-treat” that will link testing with doctors who can write a prescription and then enable that prescription to be filled on-site. Right now, there are 2,200 such locations nationwide with another 10,000 to come online soon, the officials said.

People who already have a primary care provider should also be able to go through them to get a prescription.

Currently, 20,000 pharmacies nationwide can provide antivirals. The administration plans to make them available in as many as 40,000 pharmacies in the coming weeks.

An online locator is available to help people find the most convenient test-to-treat location or pharmacy that stocks the drugs.

The administration will also provide more information to medical providers and the general public about the pills, hoping to encourage more usage. A call center is available at 800-232-0233 to provide information in English, Spanish, and more than 150 other languages, according to the administration.

The federal government has pre-purchased 20-million courses of Paxlovid, so a five-day course, which includes 30 pills, is available at no cost to patients.

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Already, demand for the antivirals has been increasing, the officials said, with about 22,000 prescriptions written per week a month ago and about 55,000 this week. More than 500,000 antiviral courses have been used since the drugs were authorized for use late last year.

In other COVID-19 medication news, the Food and Drug Administration Monday approved the drug remdesivir for use in children as young as a month old, making it the only approved COVID-19 treatment for those under 12.

The drug, made by Gilead Sciences, had previously been available to young children under an emergency use authorization but is now fully licensed for use in hospitalized children or in those who are at high risk for hospitalization or death from an infection.

“As COVID-19 can cause illness in children, some of whom do not currently have a vaccination option, there continues to be a need for safe and effective COVID-19 treatment options for this population,” Dr. Patrizia Cavazzoni, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research said in a statement.

The approval was justified, according to the FDA statement, by a late-stage trial in adults that showed safety and effectiveness, as well as a trial in COVID-19 patients as young as 28-days old and weighing at least 7 pounds. As in adults, remdesivir is delivered to children by injection for up to 10 days.

Contact Karen Weintraub at kwintraub@usatoday.com.

Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Paxlovid: Biden plan will make COVID antiviral more available in US

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