The White House COVID-19 coordinator said fast-moving variants pose a “huge challenge” as infections spike but he is confident the combination of immunity and widespread use of an antiviral pill is keeping many people out of the hospital.
COVID-19 coordinator Ashish Jha said U.S. doctors are writing 20,000 prescriptions for Paxlovid, the promising treatment from Pfizer, each day — a fourfold increase over the last month.
“I think that is actually a really important reason why, despite this very substantial increase in infections, we have not seen a commensurate increase in deaths. We have seen hospitalizations rise but, again, not as much as one would have expected at this point,” Dr. Jha said in his first White House virus briefing.
Dr. Jha said doctors should prioritize high-risk people but can be “relatively permissive” in offering the drug to patients.
“We have plenty of supply right now,” he said.
Dr. Jha said he is worried the U.S. won’t be able to sustain its advantages, however, as Congress deadlocks on an immigration issue and struggles to pass a $10 billion funding package to purchase vaccines, treatments and other supplies ahead of a possible surge and general booster campaign in the fall.
“We will find a period of time where Americans can look around and see their friends in other countries, in Europe and Canada, with access to treatments that Americans will not have,” Dr. Jha said.
“Other countries are in conversation with the manufacturers and starting to kind of advance their negotiations,” he said. “My take is every day we wait, every week we wait, we fall a little further behind in line.”
Dr. Jha said the administration would have to find money this fall to prioritize the most vulnerable Americans instead of everyone, but that is not a situation he wants to be in.
Wednesday’s event was the first White House briefing on the virus in six weeks. The briefing had taken a back seat as the White House focused on other crises, including inflation and the war in Ukraine.
Dr. Jha opened the briefing with a lengthy rundown of the virus situation.
He said the U.S. enjoys a high degree of immunity against severe disease after prior surges and a robust vaccine rollout, “but we’re also seeing at this moment a lot of infections across the country.”
Reported infections are averaging 100,000 per day — a 60% increase from two weeks ago — though hospitalizations have risen at a slower pace, 27%.
Deaths have declined to about 320 per day but could rise again because they are a lagging indicator that often changes weeks after changes in case numbers.
Officials said the lack of mitigation measures is driving the surge in cases, alongside the contagiousness of the new variants. Plus, some people might suffer waning immunity because they aren’t up to date on their vaccines.
Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, urged Americans to take advantage of booster shots if they are eligible. Regulators in March approved the fourth shot of messenger-RNA vaccines for people age 50 and older.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said drug companies and officials are exploring whether the next round of boosters will include ingredients that specifically target omicron lineages. Officials and drugmakers will have to make decisions on the makeup of boosters by this summer.
Dr. Fauci also said the Food and Drug Administration is reviewing data on a vaccine for children aged 5 and younger, as some parents lose patience with the process. The FDA is scheduled to convene its panel of outside advisers in June to discuss the data from Pfizer and a rival drugmaker, Moderna.
“They are totally aware of the fact this is a pressing problem,” Dr. Fauci said. “They are going to do it as expeditiously as they possibly can.”
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