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Israel to receive first shipment of Pfizer anti-COVID pills in coming week — report

PM Naftali Bennett speaks to Pfizer CEO to finalize purchase of 100,000 pills shown to reduce risk of hospitalization, death in high-risk groups by 90%

File: Pfizer's experimental COVID-19 pills, which the drugmaker said on November 16, 2021 that it is submitting for US authorization, setting the stage for a likely launch in coming weeks. (Pfizer via AP)
File: Pfizer's experimental COVID-19 pills, which the drugmaker said on November 16, 2021 that it is submitting for US authorization, setting the stage for a likely launch in coming weeks. (Pfizer via AP)

Israel has finalized an agreement to purchase about 100,000 of Pfizer’s antiviral COVID-19 pills and is set to receive the first shipment in about a week, Channel 12 reported Saturday.

The network said Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla over the weekend to finalize the purchase deal. The anti-COVID pill will be available for free in Israel to those in high-risk groups, Channel 12 reported.

Patients will be able to take the drug at home to head off the worst effects of the virus. The pill is said to decrease the risk of hospitalization and death in high-risk groups by 90 percent.

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, including a nearly 90% 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% 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.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on December 19, 2021. (Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP)

The US Food and Drug Administration authorized Pfizer’s drug 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, though the drug is not recommended for patients with severe kidney or liver problems. Children eligible for the drug must weigh at least 88 pounds (40 kilograms).

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.

Both pills act to prevent the virus from reproducing; the Merck pill by introducing errors into the virus’ genetic code, and the Pfizer pill by inhibiting viral replication in early stages.

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.

Federal health officials are expected to ration early shipments to the hardest-hit parts of the country. Pfizer said the small supply is due to the manufacturing time — currently about nine months. The company said it can halve production time next year.

The US government has agreed to purchase enough Paxlovid to treat 10 million people, and it will be provided free to patients. Pfizer said it’s on track to produce 80 million courses globally next year, under contracts with the United Kingdom, Australia and other nations.

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

The FDA based its decision on company results from a 2,250-patient trial that showed the pill cut hospitalizations and deaths by 89% 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 dummy pill, which included nine deaths.

The US 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.

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