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Pfizer submits its COVID-19 pill for US authorization

Drug company CEO Albert Bourla says it is ‘moving as quickly as possible’ to get the treatment into the hands of patients

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)
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)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Pfizer asked US regulators on Tuesday to authorize its experimental pill for COVID-19, setting the stage for a likely launch this winter of a promising treatment that can be taken at home.

The company’s filing comes as new infections are rising once again in the United States, driven mainly by hot spots in states where colder weather is keeping more Americans indoors.

Pfizer’s pill has been shown to significantly cut the rate of hospitalizations and deaths among people with coronavirus infections. The Food and Drug Administration is already reviewing a competing pill from Merck and several smaller drugmakers are also expected to seek authorization for their own antiviral pills in the coming months.

“We are moving as quickly as possible in our effort to get this potential treatment into the hands of patients, and we look forward to working with the US FDA on its review of our application,” said Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla, in a statement.

Specifically, Pfizer wants the drug available for adults who have mild-to-moderate COVID-19 infections and are at risk of becoming seriously ill. That is similar to how other drugs are currently used to treat the disease. But all FDA-authorized COVID-19 treatments require an IV or injection given by a health professional at a hospital or clinic.

The FDA is holding a public meeting on the Merck pill later this month to get the opinion of outside experts before making its decision. The agency is not required to convene such meetings and it is not yet known whether Pfizer’s drug will undergo a similar public review.

Pfizer’s COVID-19 pill, 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)

Some experts predict COVID-19 treatments eventually will be combined to better protect against the worst effects of the virus.

Pfizer reported earlier this month that its pill cut hospitalizations and deaths by 89 percent among high-risk adults who had early symptoms of COVID-19. The company studied its pill in people who were unvaccinated and faced the worst risks from the virus due to age or health problems, such as obesity. If authorized, the FDA will have to weigh making the pill available for vaccinated people dealing with breakthrough infections, since they were not part of the initial tests.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla speaks during a press conference at Pfizer’s factory in Puurs, Belgium, in May 2021. (John Thys/Pool/AFP)

For best results, patients need to start taking the pills within three days of symptoms, underscoring the need for speedy testing and diagnosis. That could be a challenge if another COVID-19 surge leads to the kind of testing delays and shortages that were seen last winter.

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. This approach is different from that of the Merck pill, which causes tiny mutations in the coronavirus until the point that it cannot reproduce itself.

On Tuesday, Pfizer signed a deal with a UN-backed group to allow generic drugmakers to produce low-cost versions of the pill for certain countries. Merck has a similar deal for its pill, which was authorized in Britain earlier this month.

The US has approved one other antiviral drug for COVID-19, remdesivir, and has authorized three antibody therapies that help the immune system fight the virus. But these treatments are usually provided via time-consuming infusions by health professionals, and limited supplies were strained by the surge of the Delta variant.

The US government already committed to purchasing Merck’s pill, and federal authorities were in negotiations with Pfizer to buy millions of doses of its pill, according to an official familiar with the matter.

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