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Coronavirus Update: White House makes push for access to COVID antiviral, urges Congress to fund next leg of pandemic response

President Joe Biden’s administration is pushing to expand availability of COVID-19 antiviral treatment Paxlovid and is moving to raise awareness of the pill and taking steps to make it easier to access.

Paxlovid, which was developed by Pfizer Inc.
was originally in short supply after being approved for use in December, but as cases have fallen from their January peak, that dynamic has shifted, as the Associated Press reported.

The White House said Tuesday it is stepping up outreach to doctors, letting them know that they shouldn’t think twice about prescribing the pill to eligible patients. It is also announcing that the drug will now be distributed directly to pharmacies, in addition to existing distribution channels run by states.

Paxlovid was found to cause a roughly 90% reduction in hospitalizations and deaths among patients most likely to develop severe disease when administered within five days of symptoms appearing. The U.S. has ordered sufficient supply to treat 20 million people and has warned that subsequent deliveries are dependent on Congress approving further COVID-19 response funding.

See now: Can a decades-old antidepressant keep COVID-19 patients out of the hospital?

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the scientific understanding of its transmission and prevention has evolved. WSJ’s Daniela Hernandez explains what strategies have worked for stemming the spread of the virus and which are outdated in 2022. Illustration: Adele Morgan

On Tuesday, White House COVID response coordinator, Dr. Ashish Jha, added his voice to the chorus making the case for further funding, warning in an op-ed on that new variants are coming and they may be more transmissible or immune-evasive.

“Every four to six months since the beginning of the pandemic, we have seen the emergence of a significant variant, including Delta in the spring of 2021 and Omicron in late fall of 2021. There is little reason to think we are done with viral evolution,” he wrote.

The U.S. needs to buy more tests, therapies and new vaccines, including variant-specific ones as they become available, he wrote. It must also help the rest of the world get vaccinated as every new major variant was first detected overseas before showing up in the U.S. “There is no domestic-only strategy for a pandemic — certainly not one that could possibly work,” Jha said.

For more, see: Many Americans feel the pandemic is over, but new, highly transmissible and immune-evasive variants are likely, says White House COVID response coordinator

The push comes as COVID-19 cases are rising again, driven by the BA.2 variant, and two new subvariants that appear to be even more infectious. The two, named BA.2.12 and BA.2.12.1, were highlighted by health officials in New York State recently.

The U.S. is averaging 49,423 cases a day, according to a New York Times tracker, up 53% from two weeks ago. Cases are rising in most states with the highest increases currently being seen in the Northeast and Midwest.

The country is averaging 15,639 hospitalizations a day, up 4% from two weeks ago, although still close to the lowest since the first weeks of the pandemic. The daily death toll has fallen below 400 to 363 on average.

Coronavirus Update: MarketWatch’s daily roundup has been curating and reporting all the latest developments every weekday since the coronavirus pandemic began

Other COVID-19 news you should know about:

• Workers put up fencing and police restricted who could leave a locked-down area in Beijing on Tuesday as authorities in the Chinese capital stepped up efforts to prevent a major COVID-19 outbreak like the one that has all but shut down the city of Shanghai, the AP reported. Mass testing was expanded to 11 of the city’s 16 districts. Another 22 cases were found in the last 24 hours, bringing the total to 92 since the outbreak was discovered five days ago. That is tiny in comparison to Shanghai, where the number of cases has topped 500,000 and at least 190 people have died. No deaths have been reported from the still-nascent outbreak in Beijing.

• Former White House COVID response coordinator for the last administration, Dr. Deborah Birx, said the press conference in 2020 in which Donald Trump suggested injecting disinfectant to treat COVID was a “tragedy on many levels.” Birx made the comment in an interview with Good Morning America, in which she promoted her new book, “Silent Invasion: The Untold Story of the Trump administration, Covid-19, and Preventing the Next Pandemic Before It’s Too Late.”

• Canada’s Atlantic provinces, which were able to stave off COVID for much of the pandemic due to their location, are now seeing a surge in cases as most regions end mask mandates and scale back surveillance of transmission, the New York Times reported. The four eastern provinces — Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island—were not hit with the early waves that gripped the rest of Canada. “We’ve started removing masks, which for Canada is a big deal,” Tara Moriarty, an infectious disease researcher and professor at the University of Toronto, told the paper.

• United Airlines is making a big bet on demand recovery from COVID this summer with plans for its biggest-ever expansion of trans-Atlantic flights. The airline is planning 30 new or resumed flights, including to Amman, Jordan; Bergen, Norway; Azores, Portugal; Palma de Mallorca, Spain and Tenerife in the Spanish Canary Islands. The airline will also launch five new nonstop flights to London, Milan, Munich and Nice. United is also resuming 14 Atlantic routes the airline has historically served and adding frequencies in six others. It is also resuming 14 Atlantic routes that it has always offered and will add frequencies in six others. Overall, the plan will make its trans-Atlantic route network more than 25% bigger than it was in 2019, before the start of the pandemic.

Beijing is racing to test more than 20 million people as residents scramble to stock up on food. WSJ’s Jonathan Cheng shows what life is like in the capital and unpacks the likely ripple effects if officials can’t control the fast-spreading virus. Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Here’s what the numbers say

The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 topped 510.2 million on Tuesday, while the death toll rose above 6.22 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.

The U.S. leads the world with 81 million cases and more than 991,609 fatalities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s tracker shows that 219.3 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 66.1% of the total population. But just 100.1 million are boosted, equal to 45.6% of the vaccinated population.

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