Long-awaited COVID antiviral pills now available at several Lehigh Valley pharmacies


In an important step in the fight against severe COVID-19, antiviral pills to help those infected avoid hospitalization have arrived at a handful of pharmacies in and around the Lehigh Valley, according to data announced Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey are among more than 30 states that received two recently approved antiviral pills to treat COVID-19 — Pfizer’s Paxlovid and Merck’s molnupiravir.

The federal agency created the website Tuesday to help health care providers identify the locations where they can obtain the treatments, which are in limited supply. As of Wednesday, Pennsylvania and New Jersey had far more molnupiravir treatments available (20,000 to 30,000) than Paxlovid (1,600 to 3,100).

At least four pharmacies in the Lehigh Valley carry one of the two treatments, all in the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton area. There are a few others in the Poconos and Bucks County, while in New Jersey’s Warren County patients will likely head to Flemington or Dover. Local supplies ranged from a few dozen to 120, according to the HHS website. Locations and allotments may change.

The antiviral pills require a doctor’s prescription. The HHS says patients should not contact the pharmacies directly.

Hospital officials have expressed hope that the antiviral pills, which received federal emergency use authorization late last year, will help prevent high-risk people from getting severely ill or requiring hospitalization. Both have proven effective against omicron.

But officials told NJ Advance Media that they are not yet familiar with how access will work, and how much of a supply there will be.

Until the pills became an option, people who developed a mild to moderate case of COVID-19 and who met eligibility criteria received monoclonal antibody treatments, which have helped prevent severe illness, hospitalization and death. But the omicron variant is resistant to the two most commonly used monoclonal treatments — by Regeneron and Eli Lilly. Meanwhile, a newer therapy effective against the strain, GlaxoSmithKline and Vir Biotechnology’s sotrovimab, has been in short supply.

The antiviral pills, health experts say, hold promise because they’re more accessible than monoclonal antibody treatments, which typically are administered via infusion at medical facilities.

Given the tight time frame — a few days — in which a pill must be given in order to work after the onset of symptoms, being able to provide the drug to newly diagnosed patients would be crucial, health experts say.

“Store locations are prioritized based on rapid and drive-thru testing capabilities, high levels of COVID-19 within the community, vaccination rates and accessibility for high risk, socially vulnerable populations,” Walgreens spokesman Alex Brown said in a statement to NJ Advance Media. “Initially, COVID-19 oral antiviral inventory is limited and allocation will continue to increase over time as inventory builds.”

The pills must be prescribed by a health care provider as soon as possible after a COVID-19 diagnosis and within five days of reported symptoms, according to the statement. Citing the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Walgreens said eligibility for Paxlovid is limited to “adults and pediatric patients 12 years of age and older weighing at least 88 pounds with positive results of a COVID-19 test, and who are at high risk for progression to severe COVID-19, including hospitalization or death.”

Molnupiravir is limited to “adults ages 18 and up with positive results a COVID-19 test, and who are at high risk for progression to severe COVID-19, including hospitalization or death, and for whom alternative COVID-19 treatment options authorized by the FDA are not accessible or clinically appropriate.”

Walgreens added that people over the age of 65 and adults with certain underlying medical conditions may also qualify for the pills.

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Elizabeth Llorente may be reached at ELlorente@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente. Steve Novak may be reached at snovak@lehighvalleylive.com.





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