US allows pharmacists to prescribe Pfizer’s COVID pill

WASHINGTON — Pharmacists can prescribe the lead COVID-19 pill directly to patients under a new U.S. guideline announced Wednesday that aims to expand the use of Pfizer’s drug Paxlovid.

The Food and Drug Administration said pharmacists could start screening patients to see if they’re eligible for Paxlovid, then prescribe the drug shown to curb the worst effects of COVID-19. Previously, only doctors could prescribe the antiviral drug.

The announcement comes as COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are on the rise again, although they remain near the lowest levels since the coronavirus outbreak began in 2020.

Biden administration officials have expressed frustration that despite the availability of vaccines and treatments, several hundred Americans continue to die from COVID-19 every day.

Administration officials have been working for months to increase access to Paxlovid and have opened thousands of websites where patients who test positive can fill out a prescription for Paxlovid. The FDA change will enable thousands more pharmacies to quickly prescribe and dispense the pill, which needs to be used early to be effective.

“Because Paxlovid must be taken within five days of symptom onset, allowing state-licensed pharmacists to prescribe Paxlovid could expand access to timely treatment,” said Patrizia Cavazzoni, director of the FDA’s Drug Center

However, paperwork requirements could limit its use. Patients are expected to bring their current medical records — including blood tests — and a list of their current medications so pharmacists can verify that Paxlovid does not interact with other medications. Alternatively, pharmacists can consult the patient’s doctor.

Paxlovid is for people with COVID-19 who are more likely to become seriously ill. This includes the elderly and those with other health conditions that make them more vulnerable, such as heart disease, obesity, cancer or diabetes.

The FDA approved Paxlovid last December based on results showing it reduced hospitalizations and deaths by nearly 90% in unvaccinated patients, who were most likely to develop serious illness. The drug has shown less impressive results in patients who are already vaccinated, and some doctors have reported cases of COVID-19 symptoms returning after treatment with the drug.

Extending the test-and-treat program to pharmacists could add thousands of additional options for patients. The two largest US drugstore chains – CVS Health and Walgreens – together operate around 19,000 branches.

CVS Health is already providing COVID-19 care at 1,100 drugstore clinic locations.

There are also nearly 19,400 independent pharmacies that are not affiliated with a major chain, according to the National Community Pharmacists Association.

Pharmacist Michele Belcher said before the announcement she hopes to be able to test customers for COVID-19 and offer the pill because of a shortage of family doctors in her community, the small town of Grants Pass in southwest Oregon.

Belcher said she’s concerned some people might have a hard time getting a doctor’s appointment for a prescription during the tight window to start the pill.

Belcher, owner of the independent Grants Pass Pharmacy, said she used to test and treat COVID-19 with injectable drugs that are no longer as effective.

Her pharmacy routinely checks for potentially harmful drug interactions with other medications a patient may be taking, she said.

“Pharmacists are the drug experts,” she said. “We do that every day, all day, to make sure there are no drug interactions.”

Murphy reported from Indianapolis.

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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