As death toll rises, antiviral COVID drugs added to PBS

by Maeve Bannister

Eligibility for potentially lifesaving COVID-19 antiviral treatments is to be widened.

Health Minister Mark Butler says Australians over 70 who test positive to the virus will be able to access antivirals on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme from Monday.

Access will also be expanded to people over 50 with two or more risk factors for severe disease, plus Indigenous Australians over 30 with two or more risk factors.

Anyone 18 or over and immunocompromised may also be eligible.

But the health minister is resisting calls to reinstate pandemic leave payments, which ended on July 1, saying the pandemic has moved to a different phase.

“We’re beyond … lockdowns and mandates and emergency payments,” he told ABC Insiders on Sunday.

“We are at the point where there needs to be maximum information to the community so they can make informed decisions themselves.”

He said the government would listen to health authorities and remain open to changing their approach through winter.

Opposition spokesman Simon Birmingham said the government must be transparent about the advice from health experts.

“We shouldn’t be spending money that doesn’t need to be spent,” he told Sky News on Sunday.

“But if there are measures necessary in relation to public health and public hospitals, the government needs to be transparent about the advice it’s receiving and how it is acting in response to that advice.”

Millions gain access to COVID treatments

77 additional daily deaths

Australia’s COVID-19 death toll has surpassed 10,200 and health authorities are urging people to consider a fourth vaccine dose as cases are expected to climb.

More than 37,000 new infections and 77 deaths were reported across the country on Saturday with Omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5 now the dominant strains of the virus.

The number of Australians hospitalised with the virus tops 4000, up by more than 1000 in the past fortnight.

“COVID cases and hospitalisation numbers are climbing, particularly with the new variants,” Mr Butler said on Sunday.

“These oral antivirals dramatically reduce the risk of severe disease particularly for older Australians and will help keep people out of hospital.”

More than 73,000 Australians have already benefited from the medicines.

The Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee recommended the changes in response to the latest evidence on the effectiveness and safety of the medicines, current usage and the changing epidemiology of COVID-19.

Antiviral treatments, taken as a tablet or capsule, help stop infection from becoming severe but need to be started early after testing positive.

Mr Butler says the former government bought hundreds of thousands of antiviral doses “that have been sitting on a shelf instead of being used to help people who are at risk”.

Two antivirals are on the PBS. Normally costing more than $1000, they will be available from Monday for $6.80 for concession card holders and around $40 for everyone else.

Also from Monday, Australians over 30 will be able to get a fourth COVID-19 vaccine dose or second booster.

Australia’s latest 24-hour COVID data

NSW: 8760 cases, eight deaths, 1945 in hospital with 60 in ICU

Victoria: 7934 cases, two deaths, 671 in hospital with 32 in ICU

Tasmania: 1355 cases, 93 in hospital with four in ICU

-AAP