The United States buys enough of Pfizer’s Covid antiviral pills for 10 million people

WASHINGTON – The Biden administration plans to pay more than $ 5 billion for a stockpile of Pfizer’s new Covid-19 pill, enough to deliver around 10 million treatment cures over the next 10 months, according to people familiar with the deal.

Senior federal health authorities reckon the drug is a powerful weapon against Covid. When given immediately to experimental groups of unvaccinated high-risk individuals who developed symptoms of the disease, the drug reduced the risk of hospitalization and death.

Pfizer applied on Tuesday for federal approval of the drug in an emergency. A similar pill developed by Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics may be approved as early as early December, meaning pharmacies may have limited supplies available within weeks. Pfizer̵[ads1]7;s treatment is taken as a diet of 30 pills over five days; Merck’s requires 40 pills over five days.

The antiviral drugs have helped inspire senior administration officials that the United States will be able to curb the devastating burden of the Delta variant and its predecessors. Some experts believe that the worst coronavirus pandemic has occurred in the country, in part because more than four out of five Americans aged 12 and older are at least partially vaccinated.

Others say that infection rates have only plateaued and can easily pick up again, especially with the onset of winter. After a decline of more than a month, the daily average of cases has begun to creep upwards. Over the past week, a New York Times analysis shows, an average of approximately 85,800 coronavirus cases have been reported each day in the United States, an increase of 18 percent from two weeks ago. The number of deaths, a lagging indicator, is down 15 percent, to an average of almost 1,100 deaths a day.

“I think these new oral antiviral drugs will change the way Covid is treated,” said Dr. David Dowdy, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“These will help reduce the burden on hospitals and the death toll,” he said, but added that “even without these pills, those numbers will go down.”

The antiviral drugs are a new class of treatment for Covid that is expected to reach far more patients than others. Monoclonal antibody treatments usually require infusions, usually given at outpatient clinics. Antiviral pills, by comparison, are meant to be picked up at pharmacies and taken orally at home.

Their promise depends in part on access to quick over-the-counter tests, because the pills have been shown to work for five days or less after the symptoms have developed. While the government has promised $ 3 billion for rapid tests and the Food and Drug Administration has approved a dozen of them, a test usually costs around $ 12, and not everyone can easily get one.

However, one of the latest rapid tests costs $ 7, and by the end of the year it is estimated that the total supply will be almost 10 times what it was in August, federal officials said.

“You have more availability and more coming online,” said Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

“But they are still not being used to their full potential,” he added, adding, “rapid testing will be crucial to these antiviral tests.”

A much bigger obstacle, at least in the first place, is probably accessibility. Merck is expected to deliver enough courses to cover a little more than three million people before February. Pfizer is expected to deliver enough to cover around 300,000 people by the end of February, after which it will increase deliveries sharply.

This means that the drug that worked less effectively in studies will be more abundant to begin with. The Pfizer pill reduced the risk of hospitalization or death by 89 percent when given within three days of the onset of symptoms. The Merck pill was only around 50 percent effective when given within five days of symptom onset, although the different designs and timing of the clinical trials make the comparisons imprecise.

Both drugs are aimed at people who are older than 65 years or who have medical conditions that put them at higher risk for severe Covid. Pfizer submitted data showing the effectiveness of treatment only for unvaccinated high-risk individuals, although officials said the company could submit more data later as clinical trials developed.

Both Pfizer and Merck, who applied for approval of their drug last month, said it would be up to the Food and Drug Administration to decide which groups would be eligible to receive the treatment. A panel of experts advising the Food and Drug Administration on antimicrobial drugs is scheduled to meet later this month to discuss Merck’s drug.

“I think this is a powerful new tool when it comes to keeping people alive and out of the hospital,” said Dr. Dowdy. “But the people who are going to get these are the people who can get the diagnosis quickly and who are probably at risk that someone thinks they may need to get to the hospital.”

Pfizer and Merck plan to increase production next year. Pfizer has said it expects to be able to produce enough pills to cover more than 21 million people in the first half of next year and 50 million by the end of the year.

Australia and the United Kingdom have already taken up some of the supply. Pfizer said on Tuesday that it had reached an agreement to allow other manufacturers to make and sell the pills cheaply for use in 95 developing countries.

The US government had initially planned to order 1.7 million cures with Pfizer’s treatment, with an additional option for 3.3 million, for around 700 dollars per cure. But under the 10 million treatments contract, the cost is expected to be significantly lower – perhaps as much as $ 180 less per treatment.

The contract is not yet final, but an announcement is expected this week.

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