New COVID-19 treatments may not be widely available before Omicron surge

Local health experts weigh-in
Published: Dec. 27, 2021 at 10:25 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Along with the rising COVID-19 case rates, hospitalizations in the state have also doubled in the past week.

There is hope we may be able to keep many cases out of the hospital with two new FDA approved treatments, but experts fear they may not be widely available in time for this latest surge.

Pfizer and now Merck both have a pill you can be prescribed to take twice a day for five days, within five days of experiencing COVID symptoms.

“They’re going to be in really short supply. They’re not something that’s going to all of a sudden be available to be called in, so you can’t go pick it up and take it at home like we do with Oseltamivir or Tamiflu, for example, for the flu,” Dr. Fred Lopez with LSU Health said.

Many medical professionals warn this can blunt the treatments’ ability to help fight an oncoming wave of infections from Omicron, the number of cases doubling every two days.

“It’s just an astounding rate, and so while it’s it seems like it’s holding true that most cases are mild, when something spreads that quickly even if the risk of hospitalization is lower, it infects a whole lot more people and when that happens, there’s going to be that percentage who end up in the hospital,” Dr. Jennifer Avengo with the New Orleans Health Department said.

But, data shows Pfizer’s pill reduces hospitalization and death by 89-percent, Merck reduces that chance by 30-percent. Both can be taken at home, reaching far more people than monoclonal antibodies, which has also been in short supply, depleted by Omicron.

“What it does is it reduces the replication of the virus. It shortens your the course it helps your body fight in that sense, but that doesn’t mean that you can not quarantine, doesn’t mean that you don’t have to take all the other precautions that you normally would,” health educator Dr. Eric Griggs said.

However, The FDA authorized Merck’s pill only as somewhat of a last resort, if other treatments are not available for the elderly and those with underlying conditions like obesity, diabetes and heart disease that are at least 18 years old because it may affect bone and cartilage growth as well as cause reproductive harm in women who are trying to be or are pregnant.

Pfizer’s more effective pill has been authorized for those 12 and older who also have underlying conditions, but it could cause severe or life-threatening interactions with widely used medications, like statins, blood thinners and some antidepressants and is not recommended for people with severe kidney or liver disease.

“It’s a really good choice for people that are high risk, or that might not have accessibility to things like vaccines or other types of treatment, so it’s definitely still a good thing, but it’s something that you want to be careful with and talk to your doctor,” Griggs said.

Merck is expected to have enough pills for 3.1 million people by the end of January. The first 378,000 are expected in less than two weeks.

Pfizer is expected to supply 265,000 people by the end of January. Initial supplies are expected in the next few days.

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