US seeks to increase the availability of Covid-19 treatments as hospital admissions increase

White House officials are expected on Wednesday to outline steps the administration has taken to try to speed up access to and access to Covid-19 treatments, such as antiviral drugs, which have been in short supply amid a wave of cases of the Omicron variant.

The drugs, including Pfizer Inc.’s Paxlovid, are expected to play a crucial role in keeping people out of hospitals, but are in limited supply.

Officials are set to outline how they worked with Pfizer to speed up the clinical trial process to shave seven months off the original final testing timeline, according to a person familiar with the planning. The trial results were available late last year, about seven months earlier than the originally scheduled timeline, the person said.

To help fight Omicron, the Biden administration is opening more Covid test sites and delivering 500 million Covid tests to Americans. WSJ’s Daniela Hernandez breaks down why testing is still a pain point in the United States, two years after the pandemic. Photo illustration: David Fang

The accelerated schedule is one of the reasons the Pfizer drug is deficient, the person said. The United States has now purchased 20 million treatment courses and should have them all in June, the person said. The administration continues to work with Pfizer to help it further expand its production capacity, including through the Defense Production Act, the person said.

U.S. hospitals are dealing with the highest number of registered Covid-19 patients since the pandemic began, according to data from the federal government. The seven-day average of patients in U.S. hospitals with confirmed or suspected Covid-19 on Tuesday reached 140,576, surpassing the previously recorded high during last winter’s wave.

Although evidence suggests that the Omicron variant is less likely to cause serious illness than previous variants, its higher infectivity and the large number of infections have pushed hospitalizations up.

A Covid-19 test center in Leipzig, Germany.


Photo:

Jens Schlueter / Getty Images

In New York, state officials said Wednesday that the number of people in New York’s hospitals with Covid-19 rose again to 12,671, but the percentage of positive tests has dropped in the past week.

“The slowdown in new cases gives us a glimmer of hope, but cases are still high and we are not near the end of the winter wave,” Governor Kathy Hochul said in a statement.

Data provided by Kinsa, a company with smart thermometers, showed that the percentage of people who reported fever crossed the historical average on December 18 and has been declining since December 30. As of Tuesday, 0.35% of measurements made on about 19,000 thermometers in New York City showed fever.

A study of Covid-19 patients at Kaiser Permanente’s health facilities in California found that people infected with the Omicron variant were hospitalized for a shorter time and were less likely to land in the intensive care unit than people infected with Delta. variant, federal officials said Wednesday.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Director Rochelle Walensky, said the preprint study, which means it has not been peer-reviewed, showed that people infected with the Omicron variant were hospitalized for about 1.5 days compared to a five-day trial. days median stay for persons infected with Delta. No patients infected with Omicron required mechanical ventilation, said Dr. Walensky.

“Although we see early evidence that Omicron is less severe than Delta and that those infected are less likely to require hospitalization, it is important to note that Omicron remains much more transmissible than Delta,” said Dr. Walensky. She said the wave of Omicron infections in the United States was expected to peak in the coming weeks.

The Omicron wave has also led to an increase in infections among nursing home staff and residents, threatening to cause serious illness and death among vulnerable seniors, while exacerbating staff shortages.

In Europe, most countries continue with their strategy of accepting the growing number of Omicron infections as unavoidable and concentrating on measures to reduce hospitalizations, in particular by increasing the pressure on the unvaccinated minority of citizens to get shots.

In Belgium, which has not imposed serious restrictions on day-to-day operations in the midst of the spread of Omicron, the number of cases doubled during the week to Sunday, the most recent period for which data is available, compared to the previous week. But during the same period, the number of patients in hospitals increased by less than 10%, and admissions to intensive care units continued with a month-long decline. Deaths associated with Covid-19, a lame indicator, dropped nearly 30% during the week.

Also in Germany, a rapid increase in Omicron infections has not caused an increase in hospitalizations, although health experts warn that a continued high number of cases could eventually lead to more people ending up in hospitals.

Meanwhile, new rules in Germany’s parliament that allow only legislators who have been vaccinated with vaccination or previous infection to enter the plenary have prompted a setback by some legal experts and the far-right opposition party Alternative for Germany, which condemned the rule. as “vaccination apartheid”. . “

Researchers use automation, real-time analysis and pooling of data from around the world to quickly identify and understand new coronavirus variants before the next one spreads widely. Photo illustration: Sharon Shi

In the UK, there are early signs that the Omicron wave is running out of steam. The last week’s average of just over 157,000 daily confirmed infections has fallen 13% compared to the week before. New Covid-19 admissions have increased by 18% on average compared to the previous week, and deaths are 81% higher. Admissions are running at less than half the record level a year ago.

French Health Minister Olivier Véran said on Wednesday that the pattern of Omicron’s circulation seen in South Africa and the United Kingdom suggests that cases may reach a peak, or at least a plateau, in the coming days. France’s seven-day average of newly confirmed infections is around 283,000, an increase of 57% compared to a week ago. On average, 2,173 people are hospitalized daily, well below the number of hospitalizations in France during previous waves of the pandemic.

The French government said it would soon lift some restrictions on British entry into the country without giving details. Gabriel Attal, spokesman for the French government, said authorities would announce the change before the end of the week. In mid-December, France blocked tourists and most business travelers from the UK in response to an increase in Omicron cases in the UK.

Turkey set a record for new infections and posted 74,266 new cases late on Tuesday when the government warned that Omicron was becoming more dominant.

The country has avoided imposing new restrictions to curb the virus. Last week, the government shortened the isolation period for those who tested positive, from 10 days to a week, with the country’s health minister saying deaths from the current wave of the virus have remained low. The country reported 137 deaths late Tuesday.

Write to Stephanie Armor at stephanie.armour@wsj.com and Jared S. Hopkins at jared.hopkins@wsj.com

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