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Looking up: COVID pill authorized, pause on student loan payments extended

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U.S. health regulators on Wednesday authorized the first pill against COVID-19, a Pfizer drug that Americans will be able to take at home to head off the worst effects of the virus.

The long-awaited milestone comes as U.S. cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all rising and health officials warn of a tsunami of new infections from the omicron variant that could overwhelm hospitals.

The drug, Paxlovid, is a faster way to treat early COVID-19 infections, though initial supplies will be extremely limited. All of the previously authorized drugs against the disease require an IV or an injection.

An antiviral pill from Merck also is expected to soon win authorization. But Pfizer's drug is all but certain to be the preferred option because of its mild side effects and superior effectiveness, including a nearly 90% reduction in hospitalizations and deaths among patients most likely to get severe disease.

“The efficacy is high, the side effects are low and it’s oral. It checks all the boxes,” said Dr. Gregory Poland of the Mayo Clinic. “You’re looking at a 90% decreased risk of hospitalization and death in a high-risk group — that’s stunning.”

The Food and Drug Administration authorized Pfizer's drug for adults and children ages 12 and older with a positive COVID-19 test and early symptoms who face the highest risks of hospitalization. That includes older people and those with conditions like obesity and heart disease, though the drug is not recommended for patients with severe kidney or liver problems. Children eligible for the drug must weigh at least 88 pounds (40 kilograms).

The pills from both Pfizer and Merck are expected to be effective against omicron because they don’t target the spike protein where most of the variant’s worrisome mutations reside.

The Biden administration on Wednesday extended a student loan moratorium that has allowed tens of millions of Americans to put off debt payments during the pandemic.

Under the action, payments on federal student loans will remain paused through May 1. Interest rates will remain at 0% during that period, and debt collection efforts will be suspended. Those measures have been in place since early in the pandemic, but were set to expire Jan. 31.

President Joe Biden said financial recovery from the pandemic will take longer than job recovery, especially for those with student loans.

“We know that millions of student loan borrowers are still coping with the impacts of the pandemic and need some more time before resuming payments,” he said in a statement, adding it was an issue he and the vice president “both care deeply about.”

The White House also downplayed a statement by the U.S. Secret Service that nearly $100 billion at minimum has been stolen from COVID-19 relief programs, saying Wednesday that the estimate is based on old reports.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki, when asked to comment on the figure, said, “There is no new research, data or analysis of fraud here.”

The Secret Service told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the estimate is based on Secret Service cases and data from the Labor Department and the Small Business Administration.

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