A close up look at the label for Pfizer's Paxlovid medication.Share on Pinterest
Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg via Getty Images
  • Two antiviral pills to treat COVID-19 have been authorized for use by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA).
  • These pills are currently only being made available to older and immunocompromised people with COVID-19.
  • Experts say if you want to get these pills, you’ll need to get a test quickly to confirm your COVID-19 diagnosis.

Over 2 years into the COVID-19 pandemic there are now better treatments for the disease, including two antiviral pills.

Despite other treatments, such as monoclonal antibodies, these oral medications promised something that had been missing in the treatment regimen — an oral at-home therapy to help prevent progression to severe illness.

But currently, demand is far outpacing supply for these drugs, which can leave people with COVID-19 stuck trying to figure out if they are able to get them to decrease their risk of severe disease.

We talked to experts about what to do if you have COVID-19 and want to get this antiviral treatment.

Antiviral pills from Pfizer are called Paxlovid, and those from Merck are currently known as molnupiravir. They have shown promise in preventing severe and life threatening illness. However, in current trials, Paxlovid has better prevention.

In December 2021, the FDA granted emergency use authorization (EUA) for these two oral medications aimed at preventing severe COVID-19 after contracting the virus.

“This agent significantly reduces viral shedding as early as day 3 and reduces severe infection by 88 percent,” said Dr. Turner Overton, associate professor in the division of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“While it appears to be a more potent agent, it has some drug-drug interactions that require adjusting of other medications if a patient takes them,” Overton told Healthline.

Although molnupiravir is seemingly less effective as it reduces the likelihood of severe infections by 30 percent, it provides an alternative option.

As these medications are new and have known medication interactions, Veena Venugopalan, PharmD, and Kayihura Manigaba, PharmD, professors of pharmacotherapy and translational research at the University of Florida, give caution to their use.

“It’s important to seek and establish care with a primary care provider because these pills should be used cautiously in some patients. Paxlovid, for instance, interacts with many medications, so it is very important for the PCP to review your medications and determine the best treatment for you,” they said.

First, a patient must have a positive COVID-19 test result. Getting a PCR test as quickly as possible is important as these medications work best early. It should be noted that these medications are not approved for COVID-19 prevention.

You must also meet additional criteria before receiving a prescription for these medications as they are currently reserved for the most vulnerable populations.

The FDA has authorized Paxlovid for individuals as young as 12 years old, weighing at least 88 pounds, and considered at high risk. The Merck tablets are for those that are 18 and up and who are also at high risk. Despite the federal guidelines, several states have also instituted additional indications.

“Under CDC guidance, state health departments have provided a priority list of medical conditions that would make newly positive patients eligible for the antiviral medicines,” says Dr. William Schaffner, infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

Schaffner continued, “Persons who are notably immunocompromised are at the top of the list, followed by senior citizens and then persons with underlying conditions (heart or lung disease, diabetes, etc.) that put them at risk of developing severe COVID disease.”

If you feel as though you have qualified for the medication, the next step is to reach out to your healthcare professional to send a prescription to a pharmacy that has the medication. At this time, not all pharmacies have medication in stock, so you should have them call in advance.

However, if you do not have a primary care provider, you still can seek out this medication.

Health experts suggest you go to a local urgent care center or reach out to your local health department for additional assistance.

Both medications courses need to be taken within the first 5 days of COVID-19 symptoms. Paxlovid is regimented as 30 tablets over 5 days.

Merck has 40 capsules taken as four 200-milligram capsules every 12 hours for 5 straight days.

Despite many tablets, Overton stresses that the timing of when someone takes the medication is important in preventing severe illness.

“This early period is when the virus is replicating at very high levels and thus the best time for these antiviral medications to have their effect.”

Although there is some promise with the new antiviral pills, unfortunately, accessibility remains a challenge.

Supplies of these antiviral pills remain scarce as manufacturers work to increase production. Currently, states with larger populations are receiving more treatment courses in comparison to those that are less populated, and not all pharmacies are carrying the medications.

Despite supply limitations, experts suggest that these new antiviral pills can be an aid in reducing healthcare costs and can be ineffective therapy in preventing life threatening symptoms of COVID-19.

Today we have several tools to fight against COVID-19, and “these medications are part of our arsenal to get back to normal,” says Overton.

Not only are they cheaper and more convenient, but they do not require intravenous therapy to administer, and they bring the convenience of an at-home option to help combat COVID-19.

Although there is hope with these medications post-infection, Schaffner still encourages that “vaccination continues to be the primary and best way to protect oneself.”