US to increase availability of Pfizer's Paxlovid even as demand remains spotty

Pfizer's COVID-19 oral antiviral Paxlovid isn't exactly flying off the shelves of pharmacies these days. But the Biden administration still is taking steps to increase its availability.

The U.S., which has purchased 20 million courses of the treatment, is working with Pfizer to increase the manufacture and supply of the pills, an administration official told reporters on Monday.

Pharmacies participating in a federal program to distribute the oral antivirals for free are able this week to place their orders directly to the federal government. Previously, pharmacies submitted their requests to the state. The goal is to double the number locations—from 20,000 to 40,000—where pills are available in the U.S., the White House said on Tuesday.

Oddly enough, the effort comes as distributors report a lag in demand for a variety of reasons including complicated eligibility requirements, reduced testing, the potential for unwelcome drug interactions and the public perception that omicron infections don’t pose as much of a threat of severe outcomes.

Yet, the administration is plowing ahead to make sure more Paxlovid is available. Through mid-April, 1.5 million courses of the five-day treatment had been distributed with 500,000 remaining in pharmacies.

The U.S. also has established 2,200 “Test to Treat” sites, where patients can receive pills immediately if they test positive for the virus. The government plans to increase the number of “Test to Treat” sites to 10,000.

The administration also plans to boost public confidence in the pills with a campaign that will educate people on their safety and effectiveness. Paxlovid is for at-risk patients who have contracted the virus and are within a five-day window of the onset of symptoms. The drug has shown 90% effectiveness in reducing the risk of hospitalization and death.

While the administration mentioned Pfizer’s Paxlovid by name on Tuesday, it did not refer to Merck and Ridgeback’s oral antiviral Lagevrio or Gilead’s infused antiviral Veklury, which the FDA approved on Monday for children younger than age 12.

Pfizer has said it plans to produce 120 million courses of Paxlovid this year and expects contracts it has already signed to generate $22 billion in sales. To secure more than the 20 million courses it has agreed to buy, the U.S. would need more funding from Congress, the administration said.