White House unveils new push to increase availability of COVID-19 treatment pills

The White House on Tuesday unveiled new steps aimed at making highly effective COVID-19 treatment pills from Pfizer more widely available, saying more lives could be saved if use of the pills increases.  

The Pfizer treatment pills, known as Paxlovid, have been authorized since December and are seen as a key step in moving into a new phase of the pandemic where the virus is more manageable. But the administration acknowledged reports that some patients are having trouble getting access to them, and that awareness can be improved among the public and among doctors.  

To boost availability, the administration announced Tuesday morning that the number of sites where the pills are available would soon increase from 20,000 to 30,000, and that it will work with pharmacies to increase that number to 40,000 “over the coming weeks.” 

Officials will also explore federally supported “test-to-treat” sites, where patients can get tested for COVID-19, and if they are positive, have the chance to then be prescribed the pills immediately. The new sites would expand on the 2,200 currently available.  

Eligibility is for people at “high-risk for progression to severe COVID-19,” but a senior administration official said that definition could fit a wide range of people, up to 60 percent of adults who test positive, including people with diabetes or obesity.  

The administration will be stepping up education to doctors, including with a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention alert issued Monday, to encourage them to prescribe them for people who are eligible.  

“Although Paxlovid was initially in short supply after Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorization, the Administration has worked with Pfizer to accelerate the delivery of these pills, and they are now in ample supply,” the White House said in a statement.  

A senior administration official added that doctors should get out of a “scarcity mindset” around the drug and understand that more people can now get it compared to the limited supply in the early days.  

Increasing access to the pills is seen as a key way to defang the virus and ensure that blunter measures like mask mandates are not needed. Paxlovid has been shown to reduce the risk of hospitalization or death by about 90 percent, but the treatment course needs to begin within five days of symptoms beginning.  

Asked why the administration has not provided detailed numbers on how many people are using the pills, the way it has for vaccines, a senior administration official did give some numbers on a press call Monday.

The official said about 500,000 antiviral treatment courses have been provided so far, and that use has increased from about 22,000 courses per week a month ago to about 55,000 per week now.