SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea on Thursday received its first supply of Pfizer’s COVID-19 antiviral tablets to treat patients with mild or moderate symptoms.
Health officials have described Paxlovid pills as a potentially important tool for suppressing hospitalizations and deaths, as the country prepares for another potential surge in infections caused by the infectious omicron variant.
South Korea’s initial supplies are sufficient to support the required five-day treatment cycles for 21,000 people. Officials say another batch of pills, enough to provide the five-day training sessions for 10,000 people, will arrive by the end of January.
Workers were seen unloading containers of tablets from a plane at Incheon International Airport. The pills will be transported to a drug warehouse in central South Korea before being given to patients across the country from 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 at home or in shelters for mild or moderate symptoms.
“In clinical trials, this drug has been shown to reduce the risk of hospitalization or death by 88%, so we hope for a similar level of efficacy (in the real world),” said Lim Suk Young, a senior official in Korea. 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 COVID-19 antiviral pill, Molnupiravir.
South Korea in recent months has suffered a devastating delta-driven surge that has caused a spike in hospitalizations and deaths, but transmission slowed after officials imposed strict virus restrictions in the country in mid-December. The rules include a ban on private social gatherings of five or more people across the country and a requirement that restaurants, cafes, gyms and karaoke venues close by 9pm.
But officials say the virus may regain speed in the coming weeks due to the spread of the Omicron variant, which is likely to become the dominant strain in the country by the end of this month. About 12% of confirmed infections last week were from the Omicron strain, which he said could account for more than 50% of cases within a week or two, Sun Youngrai, a senior health ministry official, said.
Kuwait’s Civil Aviation Control Authority reported 4,167 new cases of the virus on Thursday, including 391 cases of international passengers. Officials say nearly 90% of cases linked to international passengers have been omicron cases.
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