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Paxlovid, a highly effective COVID drug, will be made available to more pharmacies

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's a lifesaving antiviral drug from Pfizer out there called Paxlovid. It's been shown to reduce the risk of hospitalization from COVID by up to 90%. And yet, hundreds of thousands of doses of this drug are just sitting on pharmacy shelves, unused. Today, the White House plans to reveal a new push to make sure people know about it and to encourage doctors to prescribe it. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith has details, and she joins us this morning. Hey, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: If Paxlovid is something that could save your life, why aren't people taking it?

KEITH: There are several reasons, but it all comes down to this - actually getting the drug is, as one health care expert put it to me, a bit of a rigmarole. You have to start taking it within five days of the onset of symptoms. So it is a race to get a COVID test, get someone to prescribe it, find a pharmacy that actually carries it and then start taking it. It is currently authorized for people 12 and up who have risk factors for severe COVID, but it turns out that's a lot of people because that could include being overweight or having asthma or diabetes or high blood pressure. But many doctors have been reluctant to prescribe it. One administration official on a call with reporters last night explained that a lot of docs are still operating from a scarcity mindset because back in December and January it really was scarce. But now, there are plenty of pills to go around.

MARTIN: So what's the White House plan to do something about this?

KEITH: Education and outreach and not just to potential patients but also to doctors and others who could prescribe it. A lot of patients simply do not know that Paxlovid exists, or their doctors tell them they don't qualify when they really do. Paxlovid is a bit complicated to prescribe. There are some drug-drug interactions, which means the doctors have to puzzle through their patient's medications list and decide, for instance, that they need to go off their cholesterol medication while they're taking the Paxlovid. The White House COVID team is providing doctors with information to make it easier to decide whether their patients are a good fit for the drug.

They're also announcing a new program with pharmacies to get these pills into even more retail pharmacies - 10,000 additional locations this week with more to follow. And the administration is also working to expand its test-to-treat program, working with FEMA and the states to set up these one-stop shops where you could get tested and get Paxlovid with less of the rigmarole. But health professionals I've spoken to say the fact that people don't know about it and they aren't taking it when it could keep them out of the hospital is simply a failure. Today's announcement is an acknowledgment from the White House that getting the pills wasn't enough. They have to do more.

MARTIN: Right. So meanwhile, Congress is back this week, and the White House still doesn't have the $22 billion in additional COVID funding that they asked for last month. Any movement there?

KEITH: Not much. You might remember just before the spring recess, there was a bipartisan deal to fund less than half of what the White House had asked for, and it blew up. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer now says both parties must come back to the table and find an agreement, but the timeline he gave was weeks rather than days. The White House says that this lack of funding won't affect Paxlovid supplies today. This is about the next generation of antiviral pills or a variant-specific booster that might be needed this fall.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Extra points for using the word rigmarole, Tam, this morning.

KEITH: Twice.

MARTIN: Thanks so much. Twice.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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