The federal government is planning to spend $5 billion on Pfizer's COVID antiviral treatment pills, and will begin making these available to vulnerable populations as soon as the FDA grants emergency approval of the drug.

The threat of COVID, especially for the elderly and unvaccinated, is expected to be less dire in 2022 with the introduction of at least two antiviral treatments that have proven effective in trials. And as the New York Times reports, the Biden Administration has already committed to $5 billion worth of the pills being developed by Pfizer — enough to treat 10 million infected patients.

On Tuesday, Pfizer formally sought the FDA's authorization for its oral antiviral treatment — authorization that, for now, it is only seeking for unvaccinated elderly and at-risk individuals. A Pfizer spokesperson told the times that it may later seek authorization for using the pills in vaccinated people as well, but it is waiting on clinical trial data for that.

The treatment, brand name Paxlovid, was found in trials to be 89% effective at preventing hospitalization and death among at-risk patients, if given within three days of symptom onset. Paxlovid requires a course of 30 pills given over five days.

With production not yet ramped up, Pfizer says it will likely only have enough pills to treat 180,000 people by the end of 2021, with 21 million more courses of treatment ready by June.

A similar antiviral made by Merck was found in trials to be 50% effective at preventing hospitalization and death, however the Times notes that "the different designs and timing of the trials make comparisons imprecise."

Mortality rates and hospitalizations from COVID are already on the decline nationwide, due to widespread vaccination in addition to growing natural immunity from COVID infections.

Still, says Johns Hopkins public health professor Dr. David Dowdy, "I do think that these new oral antivirals will change the way that Covid is managed."

Such treatments also, when made available to the broader public, will ease anxieties about breakthrough infections and the roulette of rare severe cases among the vaccinated.

The feds are buying in bulk, not just to prepare for the worst but also to save some money. As the Times notes, the government "had initially planned to order 1.7 million courses of Pfizer’s treatment, with an additional option for 3.3 million, for about $700 per course." But ordering 10 million courses of treatment brings the per-course cost down to $500.

Not to leave Merck out, the feds also plan to buy 3.1 million courses of treatment from them as well, at a cost of $700 per.

Photo: Christina Victoria Craft