The Biden administration is planning to pay more than five billion dollars for a stockpile of Pfizer’s new Covid-19 pill, enough for about 10 million courses of treatment, after the company gears up production next year, according to people familiar with the agreement.
Senior federal health officials describe the pill as a powerful new weapon against Covid. When given promptly to trial groups of high-risk unvaccinated people who developed symptoms of the disease, the drug sharply reduced the risk of hospitalization and death.
The action comes at a time of renewed hope among some senior Biden administration officials that the nation may have weathered the worst of the pandemic, even as the onset of winter threatens to spur the spread of infection.
More than 70 percent of the nation’s adults are now fully vaccinated. After exacting a horrific toll since midsummer, the virus has left a trail of death and disease but also more natural immunity in its wake, some public health experts say.
“I do think that these new oral antivirals will change the way that Covid is managed,” said Dr. David Dowdy, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “These will help reduce burden on hospitals and the death toll.”
“But even without these pills, those numbers are going down,” he added.
Pfizer on Tuesday asked the Food and Drug Administration to authorize its pill for high-risk, unvaccinated people. A similar drug developed by Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics could be authorized as soon as early December.
A spokesman for Pfizer, Kit Longley, said that while the company is seeking authorization for its pill to be given only to unvaccinated people for now, it might ask for a modification later, depending on the data from clinical trials.
Both treatments are geared toward people who are older than 65 or who suffer from medical conditions that put them at higher risk of severe Covid. Among clinical trial volunteers, the Pfizer drug cut the risk of hospitalization or death by 89 percent when given within three days after the start of symptoms.
The Merck pill was about 50 percent effective when given within five days of the onset of symptoms, though the different designs and timing of the trials make comparisons imprecise.
Pfizer has said it expects to be able to produce enough pills for more than 180,000 people by the end of this year and for more than 21 million in the first half of next year. Merck, too, has said it plans to ramp up production over the next year.
The U.S. 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 the new supply of ten million courses is expected to cost significantly less per treatment. The treatment involves 30 pills taken over the course of five days.
The contract is still being finalized, but an announcement is expected this week, according to one official familiar with the deal.
The government has also ordered 3.1 million treatment courses, with options for 2 million more, of Merck’s pill, at about $700 per person.
Rebecca Robbins contributed reporting.
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