Nov 5, 2021 - Health

New COVID pill shows the need for widescale testing

Illustration of clock with a q-tip for the hour hand
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Pfizer's new COVID-19 antiviral is highly effective when given early in the course of an infection — underscoring the importance of cheap, easily accessible COVID-19 tests, including at-home rapid versions.

Driving the news: Pfizer's oral antiviral drug reduced the risk of hospitalization or death from COVID-19 by 89%, according to interim results from a mid-to-late-stage study announced by the company on Friday, my colleague Rebecca Falconer writes.

  • Notably, that protection came when treatment began within three days of developing symptoms.
  • Other treatments have shown success in preventing death among hospitalized COVID patients, but Pfizer's pill keeps them out of the hospital altogether — provided it's given in time.

The big picture: Getting the most out of treatments like Pfizer's will require ensuring that people can easily and regularly get tested — or test themselves — for COVID-19.

  • The catch: More than 18 months into the pandemic, the U.S. is still struggling to manage testing — both lab-based PCR tests and rapid, at-home diagnostics.

Between the lines: An investigative piece published by ProPublica this week outlined the regulatory failures and lack of public support that delayed at-home tests in the U.S. for months and have kept them expensive and hard to find since.

  • The U.K., by contrast, provides up to seven free at-home tests for people who can't get tests at work or home, while Germany long provided such tests free of charge.
  • While the Biden administration has invested billions to expand the supply of rapid tests, diagnostics are still limited and costly, and vaccine mandates — which often include a regular screening option — will further stress supplies.

What's next: Making rapid, at-home diagnostics for diseases more available could provide benefits that go beyond COVID-19.

  • Tamiflu, for instance, can reduce the severity of a flu infection, but it works most effectively if taken shortly after symptoms commence — symptoms that often resemble those of other respiratory illnesses.
  • At-home flu tests could make that possible.
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