Government urges take up of Covid antivirals as almost 500,000 in Australian stockpile near expiry date

by Sarah Martin
Health minister says Coalition allowed drugs that can prevent severe cases and hospitalisation to ‘gather dust’ in storage

Just 20,000 of the 1m Paxlovid antiviral drugs ordered by the former government have been prescribed to Covid-19 patients, leaving Australia with hundreds of thousands of drugs due to expire within months.

While the take-up of Covid-19 antiviral medicines has tripled since eligibility was expanded a fortnight ago, the federal government is urging more people to access the drugs amid concern about the shelf life of remaining treatments.

The health minister, Mark Butler, has praised the “tremendous” increase in the number of Australians accessing the treatments, but that significant supplies are still available. He has also been critical of the Morrison government for allowing the drugs to “gather dust” in storage with very low initial take-up rates.

While the department will not reveal how many of the oral antiviral treatments are still in national stockpiles, the former government ordered 1.3m courses, comprising 1m Paxlovid and 300,000 Lagevrio.

Figures obtained by Guardian Australia show that in total, more than 116,500 people have so far received prescriptions for the Covid-19 oral treatments, with about 97,400 prescriptions filled for Lagevrio (Molnupiravir) and just 19,500 for Paxlovid.

The low number of Paxlovid treatments prescribed could leave Australia with hundreds of thousands of drugs passed their use-by-date, with the medication having a shelf life of just nine months.

The first batch of 500,000 treatments was expected to arrive in Australia early in the year, meaning many of these are likely to expire in the next few months. The former health minister, Greg Hunt, said the agreement with Pfizer would see another 500,000 arrive throughout the course of 2022.

Butler has flagged he is working with manufacturers and the country’s regulators to determine whether the shelf life for the remaining treatments can be extended amid concern that any unused stock may have to be dumped.

In the US, the food and drug administration in April extended the shelf-life of Paxlovid from nine months to 12 months.

For the week ending 17 July, almost 30,000 antiviral treatments were prescribed – double the figure of the previous week. More than two-thirds of these were Lagevrio, developed by pharmaceutical company Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD), and about 6,000 were Paxlovid.

A month ago, just 5,600 antivirals were being prescribed weekly.

“We know these medicines can prevent at-risk people from severe Covid-19, hospitalisations and worse,” Butler said in a statement.

“There are significant supplies of these medicines and I want to see this number continue to increase. If you are in one of the risk categories, please talk to your GP to develop a plan for if you test positive so you can get a script filled quickly.”

On 11 July, eligibility for the oral antivirals was expanded to all Australians aged 70 and over, and for those 50 and over with two or more risk factors for severe disease.

Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people aged 30 and over with two or more risk factors for severe disease, and immunocompromised people 18 and over are also eligible.

After pressure from doctors, the government also agreed to extend funding for longer telehealth appointments to allow for the prescription of antiviral drugs over the phone, which doctors say will help keep people out of the hospital system.

According to the latest figures from the Department of Health, there are more than 350,000 active Covid cases – a figure that the government says could be half the actual number in the community.

Butler has warned that millions more cases are possible before the winter is out as the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants continue to drive a massive third wave of cases across the country.