MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Pfizer has officially sent out the first shipment of its COVID-19 oral antiviral treatment.
The shipment left the Memphis, Tennessee distribution center Thursday afternoon, the pharmaceutical company posted on Twitter.
While this treatment is not approved, the Food and Drug Administration authorized it for emergency use for adults and children ages 12 and older with a positive COVID-19 test and early symptoms who face the highest risks of hospitalization.
That includes older people and those with conditions like obesity and heart disease. Children eligible for the drug must weigh at least 88 pounds.
An antiviral pill from Merck also is expected to soon win authorization.
But Pfizer's drug is all but certain to be the preferred option because of its mild side effects and superior effectiveness, including a nearly 90 percent reduction in hospitalizations and deaths among patients most likely to get severe disease.
"The efficacy is high, the side effects are low and it's oral. It checks all the boxes," said Dr. Gregory Poland of the Mayo Clinic. "You're looking at a 90 percent decreased risk of hospitalization and death in a high-risk group — that's stunning."
The pills from both Pfizer and Merck are expected to be effective against omicron because they don't target the spike protein where most of the variant's worrisome mutations reside.
But Pfizer's pill comes with its own challenges.
Patients will need a positive COVID-19 test to get a prescription. And Paxlovid has only proven effective if given within five days of symptoms appearing. With testing supplies stretched, experts worry it may be unrealistic for patients to self-diagnose, get tested, see a physician and pick up a prescription within that narrow window.
"If you go outside that window of time I fully expect the effectiveness of this drug is going to fall," said Andrew Pekosz, a Johns Hopkins University virologist.
The U.S. will pay about $500 for each course of Pfizer's treatment, which consists of three pills taken twice a day for five days. Two of the pills are Paxlovid and the third is a different antiviral that helps boost levels of the main drug in the body.