Israel began distributing the first coronavirus pills to at-risk patients with COVID-19 on Sunday with the aim of preventing them from becoming seriously ill with the virus.
Two health maintenance organizations prescribed Pfizer’s Paxlovid to a handful of patients. Each patient was given careful instruction by an HMO pharmacist on how to take the pills which were delivered to their homes.
Two of those selected were Simcha Newmark, 32, of Jerusalem and Ora Rosenzweig, of Ramat Hasharon. A video of Rosenzweig and comments from both patients were released to Hebrew media.
“I was very happy to receive the phone call where I was informed that I would probably be the first to receive the drug in the country,” said Newmark, a member of the Meuhedet HMO, adding that he was not feeling well since contracting the virus.
Erez Carmon, head of medical services at the coronavirus command center for Meuhedet explained that the pills were being given under very specific circumstances to prevent deterioration among at-risk patients.
“No doubt, this is an emotional day, and I am full of hope that with its help we will be able to reduce hospitalizations and to decrease the number of fatal incidents,” he said.
Rosenzweig, a member of the Maccabi HMO, said she is triple-vaccinated but nonetheless became infected with COVID.
“Because I have other medical issues I am very worried that my situation will deteriorate and I will end up in the hospital,” she said. “This drug gives me hope that I will be able to get through this disease relatively lightly. Even though there are some concerns about the drug, the concerns over damage from coronavirus are greater.”
“Le Haim,” she said, knocking back a glass of water to wash down the pills.
The first shipment of the Pfizer pills landed in Israel on Thursday, one of the first countries in the world to receive the new drug.
The delivery consisted of several tens of thousands of pills. The medication is said to cost the country around $530 per patient, though it isn’t yet clear what the price will be for Israeli patients.
According to the Kan public broadcaster, the first shipment consisted of 20,000 doses of the pill. Israel has signed a deal with Pfizer to purchase 100,000 doses overall, according to Hebrew media reports.
Pfizer currently has 180,000 treatment courses available worldwide, with roughly 60,000 to 70,000 allocated to the US. The company said it expects to have 250,000 available in the US by the end of January.
Israel’s Health Ministry granted emergency approval to the medication last Sunday, a week after the US Federal Drug Administration (FDA) did the same.
Paxlovid is designed for at-home treatment of high-risk COVID-infected patients over the age of 12. Pfizer told the FDA that in a 2,250-patient trial, the pill cut hospitalizations and deaths by 89 percent when given to people with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 within three days of symptoms. Less than 1% of patients taking the drug were hospitalized and none died at the end of the 30-day study period, compared with 6.5% of patients hospitalized in the group getting a placebo pill, which included nine deaths.
Paxlovid has only proven effective if given within five days of symptoms appearing. The treatment 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.
Earlier Sunday the Health Ministry announced that it had also approved Merck’s anti-COVID pill, Molnupiravir, which is being sold under the name Lagevrio, and that it plans to buy the drug with the first shipment expected to arrive in the coming days. It didn’t specify how many pills it agreed to buy.
A source told Kan that enough pills were bought to treat several thousand patients, with an option to purchase more. The price tag is estimated to be around $700 per patient treatment, according to the report, which would make it more expensive than the Pfizer medicine.
Israel’s rush to obtain COVID treatment pills comes as the highly infectious Omicron variant has rapidly driven up morbidity in what is now the country’s fifth wave of coronavirus.
Health Ministry figures published Sunday evening showed that 4,206 new cases were confirmed on Saturday, a figure affected by reduced testing on weekends, with the rate of positive tests rising to 4.57 percent. Daily new infections in Israel have spiked from under 1,000 new cases some 10 days ago to almost 5,500 on Friday, and active cases have almost tripled in a week to 33,333. The total confirmed infections since the start of the pandemic stand at close to 1.4 million.
However, serious cases have seen a far more moderate increase, from 77 on December 22 to 114 on Sunday. The death toll remained at 8,244. There have been four COVID-related deaths in the country since December 21.
Agencies contributed to this report.