Pfizer Says Covid-19 Pill Is Effective and Likely Works Against Omicron

The drug helps those already infected, but experts say vaccination is the best way to prevent contracting and spreading the virus

Hand holding three while tablet pills against Pfizer branded backdrop
The Food and Drug Administration could authorize the experimental pill within days. NurPhoto via Getty Images

Pfizer announced Tuesday that its antiviral pill to treat Covid-19 appears to effectively stave off severe disease and will likely work against the Omicron variant. The company reported that when high-risk Americans took the drug shortly after showing Covid-19 symptoms, the risk of hospitalization and death dropped by around 89 percent. The results are a relief to over-burdened hospitals that are bracing for a wave of infections as the highly-mutated variant spreads throughout the country.

If the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorizes the experimental pill, which could happen within days, Americans could have access to the drug by January, according to Carl Zimmer and Rebecca Robbins for the New York Times. The update comes as the country passes 800,000 pandemic deaths, and cases rise once again. While Pfizer’s pill appears to help those that are infected—no matter the variant—experts emphasize that vaccination is the best way to prevent contracting or spreading Covid-19. 

The company’s recent analysis of the antiviral pill included roughly 2,250 high-risk, unvaccinated participants who started taking the drug either three or five days after showing symptoms of Covid-19. A full course of treatment includes 30 pills taken over five days. Of 697 people who received the drug within the first three days of symptoms, only five hospitalizations and no deaths occurred. Among a control group of 682 patients who received a placebo, 44 were hospitalized, including 9 who died, reports CNN’s Michael Nedelman.

“This is quite amazing and potentially transformative,” Sara Cherry, a virologist at the University of Pennsylvania who was not involved in the study, says to the Times. “If we could keep people out of hospitals, that would have a huge impact on health care.”

Pfizer also said the drug will attack a key protein in the Omicron variant, which is currently sweeping through in South Africa and Europe and is expected to spread throughout the U.S. in the coming weeks. Based on lab tests, the company anticipates that the medication will be able to tackle variants like Omicron because the drug works by blocking an enzyme involved in viral replication, rather than attacking a spike protein on the virus' surface that contains most of the new variant’s mutations, reports Matthew Perrone for the Associated Press.

"Emerging variants of concern, like Omicron, have exacerbated the need for accessible treatment options for those who contract the virus, and we are confident that, if authorized or approved, this potential treatment could be a critical tool to help quell the pandemic," said Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said in a statement Tuesday.

If approved by the FDA, the pills would be the first Covid-19 treatment that Americans could pick up at a pharmacy and take at home. To access the medication, patients are expected to present a positive Covid-19 test and a prescription from a doctor within five days after developing symptoms. Pfizer’s pill isn’t the only one awaiting FDA authorization: a similar drug from Merck was narrowly recommended by FDA advisers last month after studies showed it cut the risk of hospitalization or death by around 30 percent for high-risk adults.

The Biden Administration has already ordered 10 million treatment courses at a cost of about $530 per patient, though supply will be limited at first. Pfizer is expected to offer the medication to around 300,000 Americans before the end of February before quickly increasing the pace of delivery, per the Times

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.