Health Ministry grants emergency approval to Pfizer’s anti-COVID pill

Ministry says first shipment of Paxlovid oral medication slated to arrive in Israel in coming days, is expected to be equally effective against Omicron

Image provided by Pfizer in October 2021 shows the company's COVID-19 Paxlovid pills. (Pfizer via AP)
Image provided by Pfizer in October 2021 shows the company's COVID-19 Paxlovid pills. (Pfizer via AP)

The Health Ministry granted emergency approval Sunday to Paxlovid, the anti-viral oral medication developed by Pfizer to fight COVID-19.

According to the ministry, Israel has signed a deal with Pfizer for the drug and a shipment is expected to arrive in the coming days.

Last week, the US Federal Drug Administration (FDA) granted emergency authorization for the pill among those ages 12 and up. The drug is said to have mild side effects and has shown a nearly 90 percent reduction in hospitalizations and deaths among patients most likely to suffer severe illness.

Patients will be able to take the drug at home to head off the worst effects of the virus. Patients at the greatest risk for COVID-19 complications are instructed to take the pill for five days, starting within three-five days of the onset of symptoms, the ministry said. It is expected to be equally effective against the new Omicron variant because it does not target the spike protein where most of the strain’s worrisome mutations reside.

The ministry did not say how many doses of the medication Israel has purchased or how many will arrive in the first shipment.

But on Saturday, a report by Channel 12 news said Israel had finalized an agreement to purchase about 100,000 pills, adding that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett had spoken with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla over the weekend to finalize the deal. The anti-COVID pill will be available for free in Israel to those in high-risk groups, the report said.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla speaks during a ceremony in Thessaloniki, Greece, on October 12, 2021. (AP Photo/ Giannis Papanikos, File)

Israel was an early leader in COVID-19 vaccinations, specifically Pfizer’s, after it cut a deal last year with the pharmaceutical giant to receive a large number of vaccine doses before many other countries.

United States health regulators authorized the use of the Pfizer pill on Wednesday, followed by authorization for a similar drug from Merck a day later. But Pfizer’s drug, Paxlovid, is all but certain to be the preferred option because of its mild side effects and superior effectiveness.

“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% decreased risk of hospitalization and death in a high-risk group — that’s stunning.”

The pill is being touted as a faster, cheaper way to treat early COVID-19 infections, though initial supplies are limited. All of the previously authorized drugs against the disease require an IV or an injection.

Pfizer’s drug is part of a decades-old family of antiviral drugs known as protease inhibitors, which revolutionized the treatment of HIV and hepatitis C. The drugs block a key enzyme that viruses need to multiply in the human body.

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. The US will pay about $500 for each course of Pfizer’s treatment.

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