A box containing Paxlovid antiviral medicationShare on Pinterest
Experts say there are plenty of Paxlovid supplies at pharmacies. Fabian Sommer/Picture Alliance via Getty Images
  • The antiviral medication Paxlovid has proven to be effective in preventing serious illnesses from COVID-19.
  • Right now, only people with certain medical conditions can be prescribed the drug.
  • Experts say people who test positive for COVID-19 and are eligible for Paxlovid should ask their doctor to prescribe it.

Paxlovid is a potent antiviral drug that is nearly 90 percent effective at preventing severe COVID-19 and a lynchpin of President Joe Biden’s “Test to Treat” program aimed at spotting COVID-19 quickly and treating it before it becomes life threatening.

It has also been “strongly recommended” as a treatment by the World Health Organization.

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 addition, researchers say Paxlovid can help reduce the risk of serious illness in people who have only mild symptoms.

Earlier this year, many pharmacies reported large quantities of the drug were sitting on shelves and doctors were slow to prescribe it.

This may have been partly because initial supplies of Paxlovid were limited and sent only to areas of the country hardest hit by COVID-19.

However, between March and May, prescriptions for Paxlovid increased sharply. They have stayed at that higher level for the past 2 months

The increase can be attributed to a ramp-up in production as well as the Biden administration program to let the public as well as healthcare professionals know about the increased availability of Paxlovid.

The administration also arranged to purchase 20 million treatment courses of the drug.

Paxlovid’s origins date back to 2003 when the original strain of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) broke out.

Research that had begun then was eventually halted, but with the emergence of COVID-19, Pfizer ramped up testing based on the work done nearly two decades prior.

The three-pill regimen contains two different drugs: nirmatrelvir, which disrupts the novel coronavirus’s ability to replicate; and ritonavir, which slows down how quickly the body processes the drug.

The three pills are taken twice daily during a 5-day course.

“Nirmatrelvir works by inhibiting the COVID virus’s protease enzyme that speeds up the replication of the virus in the body,” Dr. David Cutler, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, told Healthline. “By inhibiting that enzyme it stops the progression of the disease in its tracks. The second drug inhibits the liver system which is responsible for the breakdown and excretion of nirmatrelvir. Therefore, the second drug, ritonavir, prolongs the ability of the first drug, nirmatrelvir, to work within the body to fight the infection.”

A study by the Mayo Clinic reported that few people with COVID-19 who were given Paxlovid experienced “rebound” symptoms after their treatment.

That research was backed up by a June 2022 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that stated that hospital admissions were rare for people who had tested positive for COVID-19 and been recently treated with Paxlovid.

The CDC also reported that Paxlovid and other antiviral drugs for COVID-19 have been dispensed unevenly with high vulnerability ZIP codes being among the lowest recipients.

The known side effects of Paxlovid are mild with one of the most common being a sensation of bitterness or metallic taste in the mouth while taking the drug.

Other symptoms include diarrhea, high blood pressure, and muscle aches.

Adverse interactions with other drugs are more common, however.

“Since ritonavir is designed to inhibit the metabolism of nirmatrelvir it also inhibits the metabolism of many other drugs,” Cutler explained. “Those other drugs the patient is taking may accumulate in the body to potentially unsafe levels. It is commonly recommended for patients to stop taking any other conflicting medications while using Paxlovid.”

Contraindicated drugs include anti-cancer medication, certain antipsychotics and analgesics, certain sedatives, and even herbal remedies such as St. John’s wort.

In addition, the CDC recommends that people isolate again for five days if they test positive for COVID-19 after taking Paxlovid.

Currently, not everyone is eligible to be prescribed Paxlovid.

Only those with certain medical conditions that put them at greater risk of developing severe COVID-19 are being given the drug at the moment.

However, those conditions have recently been expanded and include asthma, diabetes, and obesity.

A person must be at least 12 years old and weigh at least 88 pounds.

Experts say if you test positive for COVID-19, ask your doctor about being prescribed Paxlovid as soon as possible.

“As is with most antiviral medications, they are most efficacious when taken early on in the disease course,” Youssef said.

Consumers can also go online to COVID.gov to reach the government’s Test to Treat database, which helps you locate pharmacies that can test and prescribe antivirals on the spot.

The government has purchased 20 million doses of the drug and they should come at no cost to the consumer.

The database also shows which pharmacies have different antivirals in stock, making it easier to direct your prescription after the doctor fills one out.

“Paxlovid is now available at many pharmacies and is government funded during the public health crisis,” Cutler said. “With a prescription from your doctor, Paxlovid is now fairly easily accessible.”