The first supplies of Pfizer's new antiviral drug for Covid-19 have arrived in Ireland, though there is no indication yet of who will get to use the doses.
The first shipment of 5,000 doses of Paxlovid, which has been hailed as a “game changer” in the treatment of the disease, arrived in Dublin on Wednesday, The Irish Times has learned.
The HSE is expected to start distributing the drug, which is taken in pill form to prevent serious illness, across the health service within weeks, once a decision has been taken on how patients can access it.
While vaccines have protected most of the population against serious illness, immunocompromised patients and other at-risk groups continue to lack protection against the disease. Ireland is behind many other European countries and the US in providing access to new Covid-19 therapies.
Paxlovid, which studies have shown prevents death from Covid-19 if taken soon enough, has been available in the UK, including Northern Ireland, since January. It is expected to work against the Omicron variant.
Pfizer's Irish sites at Ringaskiddy and Newbridge are key production locations involved in the manufacture of Paxlovid.
The HSE originally said it would be available here in March but changed this to April after finalising a contract with the US pharmaceutical giant.
"Pfizer confirms that the first shipment of our oral antiviral treatment for Covid-19 has arrived in Ireland," a company spokeswoman told The Irish Times.
The drug is an oral antiviral pill that can be taken at home to help keep high-risk patients from getting so sick that they need to be hospitalised.
It is made up of two different drugs, nirmatrelvir and ritonavir. Clinical trials carried out by Pfizer showed they were 89 per cent effective at preventing severe illness in unvaccinated populations, and 100 per cent effective at preventing death. The drugs are meant to be taken within three to five days of developing symptoms to be most effective.
Currently, only one new antiviral or antibody therapy against Covid-19 is available in Ireland. However, Sotrovimab has to be administered intravenously in hospitals and there are doubts over its effectiveness against the BA.2 variant.
“We started preparing our supply chain and manufacturing our protease inhibitor at-risk, investing approximately $1 billion to support the manufacturing and distribution and we have already increased our 2022 projection to 120 million courses,” according to the Pfizer spokeswoman.
“Pfizer has also signed a voluntary license agreement with the Medicines Patent Pool (MPP) for the oral Covid-19 treatment to help expand access, pending country regulatory authorisation or approval, in 95 low- and middle-income countries that account for approximately 53 per cent of the world’s population.”