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COVID-19 pills could be a game changer — if you can get your hands on them

Pfizer's antiviral pills gets approval
FDA authorizes first antiviral COVID pill aimed to reduce hospitalizations as Omicron cases surge 05:31

COVID-19 patients in Wyoming eager to get their hands on Pfizer's new antiviral pill for treating the disease may want to draw straws. With supplies extremely limited for now, the Biden administration initially will provide the state with only 100 courses of the drug.

Other small states are also getting small allotments of the pill, called Paxlovid (see chart below). Alaska, North Dakota and Vermont, along with the District of Columbia, will each receive 120 courses, while South Dakota, Delaware and Montana will get 140, 160 and 180, respectively, according to a breakdown from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Until Pfizer can ramp up production in 2022, Paxlovid supplies will be scarce in larger states as well. The government will provide California with an initial supply of 6,180 courses. Given the state's population of more than 39 million people, that amounts to roughly one treatment per 6,300 residents. Texas, with 30 million people, is set to get 4,240 courses of Paxlovid. 

The Food and Drug Administration announced Wednesday it has approved Paxlovid to treat COVID-19 for emergency use, allowing limited use of the drug in Americans as young as 12 who are at "high risk for progression to severe COVID-19." 

A course of treatment is made up of three tablets that are taken twice a day over the course of five days — a total of 30 pills.

Fewer than 65,000 courses of Paxlovid — which is available by prescription only — will be available starting the first week of January, federal health officials announced this week. The government will pay Pfizer $5.29 billion to deliver 10 million courses by the end of 2022. The drugmaker said it expects to make a total of 120 million courses next year.

"According to Pfizer, the complex chemistry involved in creating the active ingredient in the pill means production takes about six to eight months," Jeffrey Zients, the White House's top COVID-19 official, told reporters on Wednesday. "So, supply of this product will ramp up over the next several months."

The new treatment comes as COVID-19 cases around the U.S. are surging, driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant. Over the last seven days, more than 1.2 million Americans have tested positive for the disease, while 1,522 people have died, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The coronavirus has killed more than 809,000 Americans since the pandemic erupted last year.

FDA approves second COVID-19 treatment pill as Omicron cases rise 09:36

In another boost in the fight against COVID-19, more antiviral pills are coming to market. For health care professionals, the pills could prove a life-saving treatment option as doctors face a nationwide shortage of monoclonal antibodies to treat high-risk cases of the disease. However, most monoclonal formulas have been found to be ineffective against the Omicron variant.

The FDA on Thursday announced it had authorized molnupiravir, an antiviral drug produced by Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, to treat some adults with COVID-19 who are at risk of severe disease when no other options are available. White House officials say some 3 million courses of molnupiravir will be available by the end of January.

"The efficacy is high, the side effects are low and it's oral. It checks all the boxes," Dr. Gregory Poland of the Mayo Clinic told The Associated Press this week. "You're looking at a 90% decreased risk of hospitalization and death in a high-risk group — that's stunning."

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