US shifting COVID antivirals to commercial market on Nov. 1

FILE PHOTO: Pfizer and Merck oral COVID-19 pills arrive at Misericordia hospital, in Grosseto

By Ahmed Aboulenein

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Most people will retain access to Pfizer's Paxlovid and Merck's Lagevrio COVID-19 oral antiviral treatments for little or no cost even after the U.S. government starts handing over their distribution to the commercial market next month, health officials said on Friday.

The government has been overseeing distribution of the treatments, alongside vaccines and tests, but has transferring that work to traditional commercial channels. Commercial ordering for the treatments is set to start on Nov. 1.

The U.S. government paid around $530 per course for Paxlovid, the most commonly prescribed at home COVID-19 treatment in the country, and made it available at no cost.

Pfizer said last week it had set the price for Paxlovid at nearly $1,400 per course before rebates and other discounts to insurers and pharmacy benefit managers are taken into account.

"The launch of these products, which is what's going to happen on Nov. 1, is not going to bring sudden changes because there's still an ample supply of federally-owned therapeutics with millions of treatment courses still in the field," said a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) official.

"Most people who need therapeutics will continue to be able to access the treatment they need at low or no cost, both during this transition, as well as after this transition to the commercial market," he said on a call with journalists.

Providers will be able to order government-supplied Lagevrio until Nov. 10 and Paxlovid until Dec. 15, the official said, and the government is encouraging them to keep distributing the federal-owned supply they have at no cost until it expires or runs out.

Under an agreement with Pfizer allowing the return of 7.9 million courses, the credits for the returned doses will underwrite a program keeping Paxlovid free of charge for patients insured under the Medicare and Medicaid programs through the end of 2024, and to uninsured and underinsured patients through 2028, the official said.

Returns will begin on Nov. 15, the official said, and will be accepted through the end of the year. The government is recommending returns start in December enough time for the establishment of patient assistance programs and securing of commercially-labeled doses.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Marguerita Choy)