Seoul, South Korea ( Associated Press) – South Korea on Thursday received Pfizer’s first supply of antiviral COVID-19 pills to treat patients with mild or moderate symptoms.
Health officials have described Paxlovid tablets as a potentially important tool to prevent hospitalizations and deaths, as the country prepares for another potential surge in infections driven by the infectious Omron variant.
South Korea’s initial supply is enough to support the necessary five-day treatment courses for 21,000 people. Officials say another batch of pills, enough to provide the necessary five-day course for 10,000 people, will arrive by the end of January.
Workers were seen unloading containers of bullets from a plane at Incheon International Airport. The pills will be transported to a pharmaceutical warehouse in central South Korea before being administered to patients nationwide starting Friday.
Because supplies of Paxlovid will initially be tight amid global shortages, the pills will initially be available only to patients 65 years of age or older who are being treated for mild or moderate symptoms at home or in shelters.
Lim Sook-young, a senior official in Korea, said, “In clinical trials, this drug has shown that it can reduce the risk of hospitalization or death by 88%, so we are looking for a similar level of (real world) effectiveness.” Agency for Disease Control and Prevention.
South Korea’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety is also reviewing whether to grant emergency use authorization for Merck’s antiviral COVID-19 tablets, molnupiravir.
South Korea has been battling a devastating delta-driven surge in recent months, leading to a surge in hospitalizations and deaths, but transmission has slowed after authorities imposed the country’s strictest virus restrictions in mid-December . The rules include a nationwide ban on private social gatherings of five or more people and a requirement that restaurants, coffee shops, gyms and karaoke venues be closed by 9 p.m.
But officials say the virus could pick up pace again in the coming weeks due to the spread of the Omicron variant, which is likely to become the country’s dominant strain by the end of this month. Son Yangre, a senior health ministry official, said last week that about 12% of confirmed infections were of the Omicron strain, which he said could account for more than 50% of cases within a week or two.
Experts say the omicron, which has already become prominent in many countries, spreads more easily than other coronavirus strains. It also more easily infects people who have been vaccinated or who have previously been infected with earlier versions of the virus. However, early studies suggest that Omicron is less likely to cause serious disease than the delta version, and vaccination and booster shots still provide strong protection against serious illness, hospitalization, and death.
The KDCA on Thursday reported 4,167 new cases of the virus, including a record 391 cases involving international travellers. Officials say about 90% of cases involving international travelers were Omicron cases.