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US health regulator authorises Pfizer's COVID-19 pill

Pfizer's treatment, called Paxlovid, is a combination of two pills to be taken over five days

By AFP
December 22, 2021
This file handout photo provided to AFP on November 16, 2021 courtesy of Pfizer shows the making of its experimental COVID-19 antiviral pills, Paxlovid, at a laboratory in Freiburg, Germany. — AFP/File
This file handout photo provided to AFP on November 16, 2021 courtesy of Pfizer shows the making of its experimental COVID-19 antiviral pills, Paxlovid, at a laboratory in Freiburg, Germany. — AFP/File

WASHINGTON: The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Wednesday authorized Pfizer's COVID-19 pill for high-risk people aged 12 and over, a major milestone in the pandemic that will allow millions to access the treatment.

"Today's authorization introduces the first treatment for COVID-19 that is in the form of a pill that is taken orally — a major step forward in the fight against this global pandemic," said FDA scientist Patrizia Cavazzoni.

Pfizer's treatment, called Paxlovid, is a combination of two pills taken over five days that was shown in a clinical trial of 2,200 people to be safe and reduced the risk of hospitalisations and deaths among at-risk people by 88%.

In an unusual move, the FDA did not convene its customary panel of independent experts to review in depth data surrounding Pfizer's pill ahead of authorization.

Pfizer's treatment has previously been authorized in the European Union.

The US has already paid for 10 million courses.

This handout file photo provided on November 16, 2021, courtesy of Pfizer shows the making of its experimental COVID-19 antiviral pills, Paxlovid, in Freiburg, Germany. — AFP/File
This handout file photo provided on November 16, 2021, courtesy of Pfizer shows the making of its experimental COVID-19 antiviral pills, Paxlovid, in Freiburg, Germany. — AFP/File

The authorisation comes as cases are surging across the United States, driven by Omicron, the most infectious variant seen to date.

The highly-mutated variant is better able to bypass immunity conferred by prior infection, and health authorities are urging the public to get boosted with mRNA vaccines in order to restore a higher degree of protection.

Unlike vaccines, the COVID pill does not target the ever-evolving spike protein of the coronavirus, which it uses to invade cells. It should in theory be more variant proof, and Pfizer has said preliminary studies have backed up that hypothesis.

Authorisation is still awaited for another COVID pill, developed by Merck, which is also taken over five days and has been shown to reduce the same outcomes by 30% among high-risk people.

Independent experts voted in favor of that treatment by a narrow margin, but expressed concerns surrounding its safety, such as potential harm to fetuses and possible damage to DNA.

The two treatments work in different ways inside the body, and Pfizer's pill is not thought to carry the same level of concerns.

Merck's treatment has been greenlit by Britain and Denmark.