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President Joe Biden's administration said Tuesday it is doubling the number of outlets where at-risk Americans can obtain free Covid-19 therapeutic pills.
Oral therapeutics such as Pfizer's Paxlovid pill are seen as an important new weapon in the struggle to knock out a virus that at its peak a year ago killed more than 3,000 people a day in the United States alone and disrupted economic activity around the globe.
While sharply reduced in lethality, the latest Omicron variant continues to spread and the White House hopes the growing combination of vaccinations, natural immunity and therapeutics will help Americans finally turn the corner on the pandemic.
"One of the most effective available treatments is Pfizer's oral antiviral pill, Paxlovid, which has been shown to reduce the risk of hospitalization or death by about 90 percent," a senior government official told reporters.
White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain called Paxlovid a "miracle pill" and tweeted that "almost all Covid deaths can be prevented if people who test positive take" it.
With 20 million pill packs ordered for government purchase, they are now "in ample supply" and distribution will be ramped up from the current 20,000 locations to close to 40,000, the senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told reporters.
The pills are available in pharmacies, community health centers, hospitals, and government medical facilities, including those run by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Food and Drug Administration cleared the medicine for use by people 12 and older who are at high risk after Covid infection.
The official said that so far, about half a million courses of antivirals had been used and that the rate is on the increase.
"I think through about a month ago, we were at around 22,000 courses, recorded as used in a week. And I think last week, we were over 55,000," the official said.
"We're trying to dramatically increase the footprint of the ways treatments are available."
The Biden administration's strategy for the long-term assault on Covid-19 -- including domestic programs and a large-scale foreign vaccine donation drive -- is at risk, however, with Congress so far deadlocked on approving more funding.
A package currently close to approval would inject $10 billion into fighting Covid-19, with half of that going to therapeutics, but none to foreign vaccine programs.
The senior official said there was already funding to buy all the promised 20 million packs of therapeutics, but what "we're really worried about, going forward, are future treatments. And so we need funding from Congress to secure the essential needs."
While Paxlovid is being reserved for at-risk patients, these would include anyone diagnosed as obese or with diabetes, among other categories, meaning large numbers of people are eligible.
The therapeutic course must be taken within five days of symptoms appearing.