"Game changer": Pfizer reports new COVID therapeutic 89% effective against hospitalization

Pfizer and the media call this a “game changer” repeatedly, but how much of the game will this actually change? Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla introduces their latest product, a therapeutic in pill form that is 89% effective in preventing severe COVID-19 onsets after symptoms appear — even five days afterward. It doesn’t replace the vaccine, but it does backstop it:

Bourla’s making the rounds today, in advance of what he hopes will be a quick approval for an emergency-use authorization from the FDA. In the sense of hospitalizations, this could indeed change the calculus, if not the game:

The pharmaceutical giant announced Tuesday that it has submitted promising new data to the FDA, including lab experiments showing its oral antiviral medicine, Paxlovid, will likely work against the omicron variant. And in updated clinical trial data, Pfizer found the treatment reduces the risk of being hospitalized or dying by 89% when taken within three days of being diagnosed with COVID-19, and 88% when taken within five days of being diagnosed among high-risk, unvaccinated patients.

“It is a game changer,” Bourla told ABC News. “But at the same time, I want to emphasize that no one should use the existence of the pill as an excuse to avoid vaccination.”

Bourla said the medicine could save thousands of lives.

“We did some calculations how many deaths or hospitalizations can be avoided based on the current U.S. mortality rates and the current U.S. hospitalization rates,” he said. “On the back-of-the-envelope calculation, we estimate that 100,000 people if they take the pill, we will avoid 6,000 hospitalizations and 1,200 deaths approximately.”

This is why Paxlovid doesn’t replace the vaccines, but is built on top of them. Without the vaccines, we’d have millions or tens of millions of symptomatic cases. Not only would that mean much higher numbers of hospitalizations and deaths, it would be impossible to produce enough Paxlovid to keep up. The supply of Paxlovid depends on having widespread uptake on vaccines, including boosters, in order to limit caseloads and help mitigate symptomatic cases.

Medically, having another effective therapeutic in play makes it much easier to manage COVID-19 as an endemic, permanent part of the human experience. That’s especially true as an oral medication, which is far simpler and much less resource-intensive than monoclonal antibody therapies.

As to “game changer” in a larger sense, we’ll have to wait and see what actually changes. Thus far our public policy has continued to follow a “zero COVID” orientation. That’s true after the vaccines, it’s been true after other approved therapeutics, and the massive impulse to go back to authoritarian restrictions ahead of the Omicron variant shows that very little of the “game” has actually changed in 2021 despite all of the “game changers.”

The FDA and CDC need to speedily confirm Pfizer’s data and get Paxlovid approved. That at least gives us another opportunity to reorient the “game” back toward normal life. The rest of the “game” isn’t anything Pfizer or any other pharma can cure.