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New COVID-19 antiviral treatments are here, but supplies are limited

An experimental COVID-19 antiviral pill called molnupiravir from Merck & Co. and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics is being considered by the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use in the pandemic.
An experimental COVID-19 antiviral pill called molnupiravir from Merck & Co. and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics is being considered by the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use in the pandemic.

There are new prescription COVID-19 treatments at San Diego pharmacies. But they are in limited supply — especially antiviral pills, which are designed to keep those who test positive out of the hospital.

"The demand is just through the roof," said Dr. Christian Ramers with Family Health Centers of San Diego.

Ramers said federal officials are prioritizing Pfizer's antiviral pill as it offers nearly 90% protection from hospitalization. The other FDA-approved treatment by Merck reduces risk by about 30%.

"The NIH puts actually that (Pfizer's) as number one — that’s the highest recommendation of what we should be using — because it can be taken at home, doesn’t require an IV and as long as you can get it within five days of symptoms starting it’s a very effective treatment," Ramers said.

In addition to the pills, there is a monoclonal antibody treatment that must be administered through an IV infusion. Supplies of that treatment are also limited, with Family Health Centers is getting hundreds of requests for it daily.

"We have about 20 slots, so just to know the crush of what we have to deal with," Ramers said. "And really what we’re tasked to do is only pick out those highest risk patients that are going to benefit most from it ... It’s like being graded on a curve: you are being put up against the other 14,000 people in San Diego that have newly diagnosed COVID and obviously those that are immunosuppressed, over 65, unvaccinated or with underlying medical conditions go to the top of that list."

New COVID-19 antiviral treatments are here, but supplies are limited

But even the short supplies are welcome as Omicron surges.

"It helps saves our hospitals that are under tremendous stress right now," Ramers said.

The county of San Diego is helping distribute the early intervention treatments.

"We are hearing from our federal government that the allocations will continue to increase for these scarce medications," said Dr. Jennifer Tuteur, San Diego County's deputy chief medical officer.

Tuteur said those who've tested positive, have mild to moderate symptoms and think they need the treatment, should contact their doctor quickly as the effectiveness of the treatments diminish as time goes on. The antibodies are designed to be used within ten days of initial symptoms and five days for the antivirals.

"They should call their primary doctor, the should not go to the emergency room," Tuteur said of those seeking the treatments. "The emergency rooms are very busy taking care of people with emergent conditions right now and the whole point of these medications is to help people avoid the hospital."

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Officials said the treatment is not a replacement for getting vaccinated and they are seeing very few boosted residents needing the aid.

The antiviral pills are at a number of CVS pharmacies in San Diego and one Rite Aid store, according to the state health department.

If your health provider does not offer antibody infusions, you can try making an appointment at a regional site by calling 619.685.2500. The antibody infusions take about 30 minutes.