Newly infected COVID-19 patients have two treatment options that can be taken at home. But that convenience comes with a catch: birth control pills should be taken as soon as possible when symptoms appear.
The challenge is to get tested, get a prescription and start the pills in a short window.
U.S. regulators approved Pfizer’s pill, Paxlovid, and Merck’s Lagevrio late last year. In high-risk patients, both were shown to reduce the chances of hospitalization or death due to COVID-19, although Pfizers were much more effective.
A closer look:
WHO SHOULD TAKE THESE PILLS?
The antiviral pills are not for everyone who gets a positive test. They are intended for those with mild or moderate COVID-19 who are more likely to become seriously ill. It includes elderly people and people with other health problems heart disease, cancer or diabetes that makes them more vulnerable.
Both pills were OK’d for adults, while Paxlovid is also approved for children aged 12 and older.
WHO SHOULD NOT TAKE THESE PILLS?
Merck’s Lagevrio is not approved for use in children because it can interfere with bone growth. It is also not recommended for pregnant women due to the potential for birth defects.
Pfizer’s pill is not recommended for patients with severe kidney or liver problems. It may also not be the best option for some because it may interact with other drugs.
The antiviral pills are not approved for people who are hospitalized with COVID-19.
WHAT IS THE TREATMENT WINDOW?
The pills should be started as soon as possible, within five days after the onset of symptoms. Cough, headache, fever, loss of taste or smell and muscle and body pain are among the more common signs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers one website to check your symptoms.
Dr. Cameron Wolfe, an infectious disease specialist at Duke University Hospital, advises you to take a test as soon as you have COVID-19 symptoms.
“If you wait until you’re starting to get short of breath, you’ve already largely missed the window where these drugs will be useful,” Wolfe said.
WHERE CAN YOU GET THE PILLS?
Pharmacies, local health centers, hospitals and emergency centers are among the places that have the antiviral pills, but prescriptions must come from a doctor or other authorized health professional.
The oral treatments are currently available in about 20,000 locations around the country, but President Joe Biden’s administration expects the total number to jump to about 40,000 in the next few weeks.
The administration is also working to expand the number of sites that can test patients and then provide the treatments in one visit. There are currently 2,200 of these so-called test-to-treat sites, including all 1,200 MinuteClinic sites in CVS pharmacies. Patients can find test-to-treat sites by checking with the U.S. government COVID.gov website.
The supply of the pills was originally limited, but copious amounts are now available.
ARE THERE OTHER OPTIONS FOR NEW COVID-19 PATIENTS?
Yes, but it is not as easy to use as a pill.
In February, the Food and Drug Administration approved a new injectable drug from Eli Lilly, bebtelovimab, which targets the omicron variant of antiviral antibodies. Regulators approved this drug for adult and adolescent patients with mild to moderate cases of COVID-19 who are at high risk of hospitalization and death.
Earlier this year, regulators revoked emergency use permits for another Lilly treatment and drugs from Regeneron and GlaxoSmithKline because they were no longer effective against the developing virus.
WHAT OTHER TREATMENTS CAN COME?
Japanese drug manufacturer Shionogi is testing another antiviral pill.
Unlike Paxlovid, the company’s drug does not require taking another antiviral drug to increase its effectiveness against COVID-19. It could reduce some of the potential drug interaction problems associated with the Paxlovid combination.
The Shionogi medicine is also designed to be taken once daily for five days. It is simpler than Paxlovid’s dosage, which must be taken twice daily for five days.
In the middle of the test phase, Shionogi said its drug significantly reduced COVID-19 viral levels and decreased in patients treated within five days of symptoms. The company is conducting a large global study in patients at increased risk of hospitalization or death due to age or other health problems. Early results from this study – which is funded by the US National Institutes of Health – are expected in the fall.
The company has already applied for approval in Japan and also plans to submit applications to regulators in the US and Europe.
AP Health Writer Matthew Perrone contributed to this report. Follow Tom Murphy on Twitter at @thpmurphy.
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