President Joe Biden on Tuesday said another batch of Pfizer’s Covid-19 treatment pills is shipping this week as the U.S. government doubles its order of the medication amid an unprecedented wave of infections driven by the highly contagious omicron variant.
Biden on Tuesday directed the government to buy an additional 10 million courses of Pfizer’s oral antiviral treatment, Paxlovid. With the new order, the U.S. has committed to purchase at least 20 million courses from Pfizer.
The Biden administration is speeding up the delivery of the first 10 million treatment courses to June from September, according to the White House. Pfizer, in a statement announcing the new U.S. order Tuesday, said the remaining 10 million courses will be shipped by the end of September.
“I’m pleased to say that on Christmas Eve, we shipped out the first batch of these pills that we purchased and received, and more will be shipped this week,” Biden said in a televised speech about his strategy to combat omicron.
While the president said production is in “full swing,” he noted that the complex chemistry involved in manufacturing the pills means it can take a significant amount of time from production to patients.
The White House, in a statement, said the U.S. government is receiving the pills as soon as they come off the production line. Biden is also prepared to offer Pfizer any resources it needs to make the pills, including using the Defense Production Act if needed, according to the White House.
“These pills are going to dramatically decrease hospitalizations and deaths from Covid-19,” Biden said. “They’re a game changer and have the potential to dramatically alter the impact of Covid-19.”
The U.S. recorded more than 1 million new infections on Monday, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The record single-day total could be due in part to a delay in reporting over the holiday weekend, when a number of states did not publish new cases.
However, the seven-day average of new infections also hit a record of more than 480,000 cases, nearly double the previous week, according to a CNBC analysis of the data from Hopkins.
Pfizer’s treatment, Paxlovid, was 89% effective at preventing hospitalization and death from Covid in a study of more than 2,000 high risk adults, according to the company.
The Food and Drug Administration cleared the treatment in December for patients 12 and older with mild to moderate Covid who are at the highest risk of hospitalization or death. The twice-daily, five-day treatment is available by prescription only.
Paxlovid is administered as three pills, two nirmatrelvir tablets and one tablet of ritonavir. Nirmatrelvir blocks an enzyme the virus needs to replicate while ritonavir, an HIV drug, helps slow the patient’s metabolism to allow Pfizer’s pill to remain active in the body longer to fight the virus.
The treatment could help alleviate strain on health-care systems by keeping people, particularly those who are unvaccinated, out of hospitals as Covid cases continue to surge.
Biden said the unvaccinated should be “alarmed” by omicron, warning that many people who have not received shots will become infected and suffer serious illness.
“Some will die — needlessly die,” Biden said. “Unvaccinated are taking up hospital beds and crowding emergency rooms and intensive care units. That’s displaced other people who need access to those hospitals.”
Biden said people who are fully vaccinated, and particularly those who have received booster doses, are highly protected against severe illness from omicron. He again encouraged everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated and boosted.
“You can still get Covid but it’s highly unlikely, very unlikely, that you’ll become seriously ill,” Biden said of those who have taken precautions. “We’re seeing Covid-19 cases among vaccinated workplaces across America, including here at the White House, but if you’re vaccinated and boosted — you are highly protected.”
About 98,000 Americans were hospitalized with Covid-19, according to a seven-day average of data from the Department of Health and Human Services as of Jan. 3, up 32% from a week earlier.
— CNBC’s Nate Rattner contributed to this report.