U.S. to widen COVID antiviral pill distribution

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 U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is aiming to expand access to COVID-19 oral antiviral treatments like Pfizer Inc’s (PFE.N) Paxlovid by doubling the number of locations at which they are available, the White House said on Tuesday.

Pharmacies participating in the federal pharmacy program for distributing antiviral treatments will be able to order the free treatments directly from the U.S. government starting this week.

Currently, pharmacies depend on states to obtain the pills. The government sends the treatments to select pharmacies, as well as directly to states and community centers. Under the current system, the treatments are available in around 20,000 locations.

The administration expects to boost their direct distribution to more than 30,000 locations soon and reach 40,000 sites over the coming weeks, the White House said.

“Treatments are really the next phase of this pandemic, where we have to make the treatments, these highly effective treatments, widely available,” Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, said in an interview on CNN.

Demand for Paxlovid has been unexpectedly light due to complicated eligibility requirements, reduced COVID testing, and potential for drug interactions.

Paxlovid was expected to be a major tool in the fight against COVID after it reduced hospitalisations or deaths in high-risk patients by around 90% in a clinical trial.

There are only a few proven antiviral treatments. The others are Merck & Co’s (MRK.N) far less effective rival pill molnupiravir, and Gilead Sciences Inc’s (GILD.O) intravenous remdesivir.

The United States has agreed to buy up to 20 million pills at around $530 a course and Pfizer is on pace to produce 3.5 million courses earmarked for U.S. use by the end of April.

Through the first half of April, U.S. data shows it has distributed around 1.5 million courses and that pharmacies still have over 500,000 available.

The government also plans to roll out more federally supported test sites as part of its “Test to Treat” initiative that allows Americans to get tested for COVID-19 at a pharmacy and receive free pills if they test positive.

There are currently 2,200 such sites and the White House expects an additional 10,000 to come online right away.

The administration also aims to boost patient and provider awareness through public education campaigns.