This colorized scanning electron micrograph image shows a COVID-19 patient’s cell (green) heavily infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus particles (purple). (Courtesy of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)
WASHINGTON — The Biden administration hopes that a new push to get a COVID-19 antiviral into more pharmacies, along with getting the message through to doctors that it’s no longer in short supply, will help reduce hospitalizations.
The plan to ship out more of the antiviral comes as Congress returns from a recess this week and again tackles a stalled request by the White House for $22.5 billion in funding to provide COVID-19 testing, treatments and vaccines domestically and abroad.
The new White House initiative is focused exclusively on Paxlovid, an antiviral from Pfizer that received emergency use authorization in December for people 12 and older who are at high risk for severe cases of COVID-19.
“It’s pretty clear from the uptake of Paxlovid and the rate of hospitalizations and deaths over the months that Paxlovid has been available that there are still some folks who could have benefited from these medications,” a senior administration official said ahead of the Tuesday announcement.
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“So we certainly know that there’s more room to go. We can save more lives by getting the medication to more people.”
Doubling pharmacies that stock Paxlovid
Senior administration officials said during Monday’s call with reporters that the White House is working to nearly double the number of pharmacies throughout the country that stock the antiviral, which must be taken within five days of COVID-19 symptoms following a positive test result.
Those officials said about 20,000 pharmacies have Paxlovid available for people with prescriptions from a health care provider, but they hope to soon ramp up to 30,000 before eventually reaching 40,000. The pharmacies will be able to order it for free from the federal government, one official said.
The administration officials said there aren’t currently any plans to expand the pool of those eligible for prescriptions of Paxlovid beyond the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency use authorization.
But the officials hope that getting the antiviral in more pharmacies and talking with doctors will help eliminate a “scarcity mindset” about the drug that has lingered, dating from the months when it was in relatively short supply.
During that period, the officials said, many doctors would prescribe Paxlovid to only the sickest patients, instead of anyone who would qualify under the emergency use authorization.
Paxlovid can reduce the “proportion of people with COVID-19 related hospitalization or death from any cause by 88% compared to placebo among patients treated within five days of symptom onset and who did not receive COVID-19 therapeutic monoclonal antibody treatment,” according to the FDA’s statement from December.
The Biden administration is “in the process of buying 20 million pills of Paxlovid,” as part of the new effort, according to one of the administration officials.
“We have sufficient funding to secure these treatments,” the official continued. “What I think we’re really worried about going forward are future treatments.”
U.S. Congress stuck on COVID funding
The message runs in slight contrast to the Biden administration’s push to get Congress to approve the $22.5 billion in funding.
The months long delay has led the Biden administration to scale back the number of monoclonal antibodies it sends to state governments by one-third and to end a program providing COVID-19 testing, treatments and vaccines to uninsured people.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki has warned that without more funding from Congress, testing capacity will begin to drop off in June.
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She’s also cautioned that the U.S. government likely wouldn’t have funding to provide free booster shots to all Americans in the event the FDA authorizes and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone get a booster shot later this year.
Psaki said on April 20 that the Biden administration needs additional COVID-19 funding “as soon as possible” because the White House already “had to take steps … like ending our program for the uninsured.”
“We haven’t been able to make purchases that we would normally purchase to get ahead,” Psaki continued during the White House press briefing. “Even on monoclonal antibodies or some of these treatments, some of them take months to make. So it already puts us behind where we need to be and want to be in planning. So, we don’t have a long-term deadline, nor would I punt that out. We want to do it as quickly as possible when they return.”
The U.S. Senate returned from a two-week spring recess Monday and the U.S. House is set to gavel back into session Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said Monday on the floor that he hopes to reach agreement with Republicans in the coming weeks on the money for COVID-19.
“The longer that Senate Republicans hold out on working with us to approve new funding, the higher the cost will be for our country down the line,” Schumer said. “As we’ve learned already, it doesn’t take much for a new variant to undo a lot of the progress we’ve made in recent months.”
Republicans, Democrats debate amendments to package addressing Title 42
The disagreement in the Senate isn’t on the bill itself; Schumer and Utah GOP Sen. Mitt Romney reached a bipartisan agreement for $10 billion earlier this month.
The debate is over whether Democrats, who control the 50-50 Senate, will allow amendments to the package addressing Title 42.
The Trump-era designation from the CDC allows border patrol officials to expel migrants, including asylum seekers, at the Southern border as part of the COVID-19 public health emergency.
The Biden administration expects to end the program in late May, a decision that many expect will lead to an increase in the number of migrants entering the country.
Republicans and numerous centrist Democrats have urged the Biden administration to keep the Title 42 designation in place.
Biden, so far, has said he doesn’t plan to do that. But a federal judge in Louisiana said Monday he plans to temporarily block the White House from lifting the designation.
If Schumer allows a floor vote on a Title 42 amendment it would likely get attached to the COVID-19 spending package, a change to the bill that could doom its ability to pass the U.S. House or lead to Biden vetoing the legislation altogether.
Psaki said Monday evening she didn’t want to comment on whether Biden would veto a bill that changes the rules for how Title 42 is administered.
“There’s a lot of steps between now and then. So, at this point, that’s very premature,” Psaki said. “There are many members who strongly would like to see Title 42 extended. There are many who strongly have the other point of view. So, we are not anywhere near that point in time.”
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