EYDER PERALTA, HOST:
With omicron cases surging, COVID-19 antiviral pills feel like they can't get here soon enough. There's a limited supply right now, so they're only for high-risk patients. NPR pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin is here to talk about how they're being rolled out across the country. Thank you for joining us, Sydney.
SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.
PERALTA: So, Sydney, tell us about these pills.
LUPKIN: So Pfizer came out with Paxlovid and Merck came out with molnupiravir. Both pills are oral antivirals that can be taken at home. They're for people who test positive for COVID-19 and are at high risk for developing severe disease. According to recent studies, Paxlovid reduced the risk of hospitalization and death in this population by up to 88%. Molnupiravir was less effective and did so by around 30%. Both will require a prescription from a doctor.
PERALTA: And when will doctors be able to prescribe them?
LUPKIN: It really depends. The government authorized both pills for emergency use just before Christmas. Dr. Sarah Doernberg at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center says her colleagues immediately started getting calls from patients asking for it.
SARAH DOERNBERG: I think people think that all of a sudden it's approved, so everyone will have it. And there's this whole process of the medication getting allocated and then getting sent to the hospitals.
LUPKIN: Her hospital was expecting its shipment Tuesday and hoped to start prescribing Wednesday, but the rollout is really varying from state to state. For instance, Illinois hasn't gotten its shipments because it's still working out which clinics and pharmacies should get them. And the plans can be really different. Indiana is sending molnupiravir to pharmacies and Paxlovid to hospitals. Meanwhile, Ohio is initially sending its limited supply of both drugs to providers already doing monoclonal antibodies.
PERALTA: But this is an oral pill. So the whole process has to be easier than giving an IV infusion in the hospital, right?
LUPKIN: Yes and no. It's obviously easier to take a pill, but it's not going to be as simple as filling a prescription for an antibiotic. There's such a limited supply. There were only 65,000 treatment courses of Paxlovid allocated across the entire country for this week. Some states, like Wyoming, are only getting enough Paxlovid for 100 people. There is more molnupiravir, but that's scarce, too. Kurt Proctor is the senior vice president of strategic initiatives at the National Community Pharmacists Association.
KURT PROCTOR: No, it's not going to be at every pharmacy by any stretch.
LUPKIN: So the chances of your regular pharmacy having it are pretty low.
PERALTA: So in practical terms, I mean, how will patients find out where to go get them?
LUPKIN: So it's going to vary state to state, and at first it really might be confusing. If you have to go to a different pharmacy to get Paxlovid or molnupiravir, Katherine Yang, one of the pharmacists who has been leading COVID therapeutics at UCSF, has some important advice.
KATHERINE YANG: Patients need to be great advocates for themselves and when they get their medications, let their pharmacist and physicians know what other drugs they're taking.
LUPKIN: Because these pills do have drug interactions, and a pharmacist that isn't yours isn't going to know your other medications.
PERALTA: OK, so when will these become more widely available?
LUPKIN: The United States has ordered 10 million courses of Paxlovid so far to be delivered through next year, and it ordered 3.1 million courses of molnupiravir. That's a lot less than what the federal government ordered for vaccines, and Dr. Helen Boucher, interim dean of Tufts Medical School, points out that these pills are not a replacement for getting vaccinated.
HELEN BOUCHER: None of these therapies that we're talking about - whether it's antibody, remdesivir or the pills - are anywhere near as effective as vaccination.
LUPKIN: She also points out that even though we are in a surge, we're in a much better place than we were in April 2020, thanks to vaccines and treatments.
PERALTA: That was NPR pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin. Sydney, thanks.
LUPKIN: Thank you.
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