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FDA authorizes pills to treat COVID — but there's a catch

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As concern over COVID -19 rises with the spread of the Omicron variant, a new form of treatment for the virus has arrived in the form of oral tablets, but there’s a catch: The medication must be taken quickly to be effective.

The FDA issued an emergency use authorization last week for oral pills made by Pfizer and Merck to treat the virus. Both Pfizer’s Paxlovid and Merck’s molnupiravir are designed to treat people with mild to moderate symptoms who are at risk of hospitalization or death, according to the FDA.

However, the FDA advises that the pills should be taken as soon as possible to be effective.

Both medications should be taken within a five-day window of the initial development of symptoms, according to a report from the Associated Press. Paxlovid comes in three-pill doses that must be taken twice a day for five days. Some pharmacies should be able to test a patient and prescribe the medication in the same visit, according to the AP. Patients hospitalized for COVID after being prescribed Paxlovid should complete the five-day treatment unless otherwise directed by their doctors, according to a fact sheet released by the FDA.

Pfizer's and Merck's treatments are both effective at reducing hospitalization or death as a result of a COVID infection, according to the FDA studies; however, Pfizer's treatment is considered to be far more effective. Pfizer's treatment has shown an 88% effectiveness rate at reducing hospitalization and death, according to the FDA studies. Molnupiravir has not been approved for individuals younger than 18. The FDA expressed concern that molnupiravir may affect bone and cartilage growth in patients under the age of 18. The FDA said that Paxlovid, on the other hand, may be taken by children as young as 12 or who weigh about 88 pounds, according to a statement released Wednesday. Paxlovid is not recommended for patients with kidney or liver problems.

“If you wait until you have started to get breathless, you have already to a large extent missed the window where these drugs will be helpful,” Duke University infectious disease specialist Dr. Cameron Wolfe told the AP, stressing the importance of taking the medication as soon as possible.

Some health professionals have expressed concern that the pills may have serious life-threatening side effects if taken by individuals who are currently taking many common medications, including but not limited to blood thinners; anti-seizure medications; drugs for irregular heart rhythms, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol; and antidepressants, according to NBC.

“Some of these potential interactions are not trivial, and some pairings have to be avoided altogether,” Peter Anderson, professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, told NBC on Sunday.

The Biden administration announced in November that it would purchase 10 million courses of Paxlovid to combat COVID-19. The plan will cost about $5 billion, according to the Washington Post.

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