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Paxlovid and other antiviral medications can help people recover from COVID-19 illness. Danil Nevsky/Stocksy
  • Researchers say Paxlovid and other antiviral medications can help even people with mild COVID-19 symptoms avoid serious illness.
  • They cautioned, however, that novel coronavirus is constantly changing, so scientists will need to stay on top of new treatments.
  • They also note that people who are taking certain other medications and supplements should consult with their doctor before taking Paxlovid.

Paxlovid is an effective antiviral drug taken within the first few days of symptom onset to help prevent hospitalization and death from COVID-19.

In fact, a new study reports that people with COVID-19 who take Paxlovid are 5 times less likely to be hospitalized and 10 times less likely to die from the disease than people who aren’t prescribed Paxlovid.

In the United States, only people with certain medical conditions at higher risk of developing severe COVID-19 are currently eligible to receive the drug.

Now, another new study suggests that expanding eligibility to include all people with COVID-19 could benefit everyone.

Canadian researchers studied 41 trials that covered more than 18,000 people with non-severe COVID-19. They reported that taking Paxlovid likely led to 46 fewer hospital admissions per 1,000 cases compared to people who received standard care or a placebo.

The researchers also found that the antiviral drug molnupiravir may also be somewhat beneficial, resulting in 16 fewer admissions per 1,000 patients.

“Because antiviral drugs may be most useful in non-severe disease, this review addresses an important gap in evidence,” Tyler Pitre, a lead study author and an internal medicine resident at McMaster University in Ontario, said in a press release.

Dr, Jimmy Johannes, a pulmonologist and critical care medicine specialist at MemorialCare Long Beach Medical Center in California, said the findings didn’t surprise him.

“These findings are in line with my expectations based on the pivotal clinical trials for both Paxlovid and molnupiravir,” he told Healthline.

“I think there needs to be more awareness among the public and among healthcare providers that these antiviral treatments are available,” he continued. “There also needs to be awareness that these treatments work best early in the course of a COVID-19 infection. Thus, early testing to confirm a COVID-19 infection is key. Further, I think health systems will need to find efficient ways of facilitating access to Paxlovid early for at-risk folks who catch COVID-19.”

But meta-analyses have limitations, experts caution, and the speed of COVID-19’s mutations means we don’t know that results that were true for one variant of the virus — in this case, primarily last year’s Delta variant — are valid for another.

“Meta-analysis can be useful when cost and logistical constraints prevent studying large groups of patients for long periods of time looking for rare events,” said Dr. David Cutler, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California. “But it also introduces many sources for error and findings must be interpreted with caution.”

In a commentary in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, where this study was published, reviewers noted much the same, highlighting the crucial importance of vaccination status as a primary prophylactic against severe COVID-19.

“[Paxlovid] is likely less effective in the real-world setting than suggested by the findings of the related network meta-analysis,” they wrote. “A recent observational study examining the effectiveness of [Paxlovid] among vaccinated patients infected with Omicron and without evidence of previous infection concluded that it was effective in reducing severe COVID-19.”

However, they noted that another story indicated that “vaccination alone was as or more effective than [Paxlovid] and that the effectiveness of [Paxlovid] did not vary by vaccination status.”

They also noted that Paxlovid manufacturer Pfizer recently stopped a trial of vaccinated individuals due to a low rate of hospitalization or death in the standard-risk population.

Experts say another reason doctors must be cautious in prescribing Paxlovid is its large number of interactions with other drugs and supplements.

“General availability of Paxlovid needs to be limited due to potentially serious interactions with many commonly used medications,” Cutler said. “This means that a patient’s use of herbs, vitamins, and supplements as well as prescription medications needs to be reviewed prior to safely prescribing Paxlovid.”

But whether or not Paxlovid’s availability is expanded in the United States, experts say antivirals will remain a piece of our COVID-fighting arsenal.

“I don’t know if antiviral treatments will help with control and containment of COVID-19. But I think they’re going to be important in allowing us to live with COVID-19, to treat COVID-19, and to prevent severe disease or hospitalization, especially in those at the highest risk for hospitalizations,” Johannes said.