Oral pills for Covid-19 to be locally available soon

Covid pills

This handout photo obtained May 26, 2021, courtesy of Pharmaceutical Company Merck shows capsules of the experimental antiviral drug Molnupiravir.

Photo credit: Handout | Merck & Co, Inc. | AFP

You will soon be able to treat and manage symptoms of moderate-to-severe Covid-19 from home, after a new public-private consortium agreed to make available oral pills used to treat the disease.

Kenya is among 10 countries selected to receive doses of a new oral drug (Paxlovid) designed to treat severe forms of Covid-19 from home.

The drugs – Paxlovid and Molnupiravir – will be made available through the Covid Treatment Quick Start Consortium that will support ministries of health in 10 low- and middle-income countries to provide oral antiviral treatments immediately to high-risk patients and scale up wider access through 2023.

Apart from Kenya, the consortium has introduced the drugs in Ghana, Laos, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

New antiviral medicines, such as the two, have been available in high-income countries since late 2021 but are not yet widely available in low- and middle-income countries, where self-testing must be scaled in parallel.

As Omicron sub-variants continue to emerge and spread, the consortium says it will ensure treatments reach patients in low- and middle-income countries at an urgent pace.

This is even as Kenya’s coronavirus cases have sharply dropped, with the country maintaining a one percent positivity rate. As of September 18, the positivity rate was one percent, with the latest data showing that nine people tested positive from a sample size of 861.

The Covid Treatment Quick Start Consortium will support governments to introduce and scale up access to new and effective Covid-19 oral antiviral therapies in high-risk populations and expects patients to start receiving treatment in select countries in September.

Whereas the cost for a five-day course of Paxlovid roughly costs $530 (Sh63,812), the consortium did not disclose how much the drug will cost under this agreement.

The drugs are expected to reduce hospital admissions and Covid-related deaths, leading to reduced burdens on health systems.

The project will kick-start programmes through a donation by Pfizer of 100,000 courses of Paxlovid™ (nirmatrelvir/ritonavir), for which the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a strong recommendation for use in high-risk individuals with mild to moderate Covid-19, administered within five days of symptom onset.

New milestone

“Having oral antivirals for Covid is something we have always looked forward to, and we are thus excited to be part of an initiative accelerating Paxlovid for use for Covid management,” said Prof Lloyd B. Mulenga, director of infectious diseases at Zambia’s ministry of health, Zambia.

“With this new milestone, we expect fewer admissions and also fewer Covid-related deaths, leading to a reduced burden on our health system.”

Paxlovid is an oral drug given to patients with Covid-19. Developed by Pfizer, the pill is available by prescription but is only authorised to treat patients 12 years and older who weigh at least 39.9kg (88 pounds) after they test positive.

It can be used in patients with mild to moderate Covid-19 who are at risk of progressing to a severe form of the disease, which could lead to hospitalisation or death.

Paxlovid – the brand name for the drug, which is made up of two generic medications, nirmatrelvir and ritonavir, developed by Pfizer – has been found to have an 89 per cent reduction in the risk of hospitalisation and death in the clinical trial that supported the US Emergency Use Authorization (EUA).

That number was high enough to prompt the US to prioritise it over other Covid-19 treatments. It is also cheaper than many other Covid-19 drugs (it is provided free by the US government while there is a public health emergency), and, perhaps most reassuring, it is expected to work against the Omicron variant.

In April, the World Health Organisation (WHO) gave a strong recommendation for use of Paxlovid for mild and moderate Covid-19 patients at the highest risk of hospital admission, calling it the best therapeutic choice for high-risk patients to date.

The antiviral pill can be taken at home to help keep high-risk patients from getting so sick that they need to be hospitalised. Patients who test positive for the coronavirus and are eligible to take the pills can do so at home and lower their risk of going to hospital.