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FDA authorizes first COVID-19 antiviral pill

Pfizer’s treatment could work against coronavirus variants

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

On Wednesday, the Food and Drug Administration authorized the first antiviral pill to treat COVID-19, a move that gives doctors another tool to fight the disease. The treatment, made by Pfizer, curbs the risk of hospitalization and death in high-risk patients infected with the coronavirus.

The drug is authorized for people 12 years of age and older who are at a high risk of getting seriously ill if they contract the virus.

Called Paxlovid, the treatment includes 30 pills taken at home over five days. It has to be started within a few days of symptoms — which could be a challenge in the United States, where it may be difficult for many people to get a COVID-19 test, a result, and see a doctor for a prescription in that window.

Paxlovid cut the risk of hospitalization and death by 89 percent for adults with COVID-19 at high risk of developing severe disease when it was given within three days of symptoms appearing.

The FDA is also reviewing a second COVID-19 antiviral, called molnupiravir, which is made by pharmaceutical company Merck. That drug appears less effective than Paxlovid — a clinical trial found it only reduces the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19 by 30 percent. France canceled its order for molnupiravir on Wednesday.

Pills are cheaper and easier to use than monoclonal antibody therapies, which have been a major treatment used for people after they contract COVID-19. Those require an infusion. Pills also may remain as effective against the omicron variant of the coronavirus as against other variants, like delta. The drugs target proteins that help the coronavirus make copies of itself — and the newly discovered variant does not have many mutations in that part of the virus. Most monoclonal antibodies appear ineffective against the omicron variant.

The Biden administration expects to have 250,000 courses of the Pfizer pills available by the end of January, Bloomberg reported.