White House Website Helps Find COVID Antiviral Pills, but Who Can Get Them?

A new federal website helps people locate COVID-19 pills. That doesn't mean you can get them if you test positive, however.

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Peter Butler
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Pfizer's Paxlovid requires a prescription and can't be provided over the counter.

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The White House recently introduced a one-stop website -- COVID.gov -- that provides a consolidated resource for information and services related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Along with searchable data on COVID community levels, as well as the ability to order free tests, the new website includes a Test-to-Treat locator tool for finding pharmacies and clinics that have COVID antiviral pills from Pfizer and Merck.

Though President Joe Biden's Test-to-Treat initiative aims to expedite the dispersal of COVID-19 antiviral pills to patients who need them, the system isn't as simple as it might seem. The antiviral pills require a prescription, and many of the pharmacies and grocery stores with pills don't have on-site prescribers. The pills are also restricted to a limited group of people: those older than 65 or with underlying conditions that make COVID-19 more dangerous.

Read on to learn more about the COVID-19 antiviral pills and how to find locations dispensing them. For more on COVID-19, learn about the new subvariant BA.2, second boosters for everyone 50 and up, and everything we know about long COVID.

What is the Test-to-Treat locator tool?

Through the revamped site, you can search locations in your area where you can get both tested and treated for COVID-19. The Test-to-Treat tool includes more than 2,000 pharmacies and health centers that offer both COVID testing and antiviral pills for treating the disease. 

The application provides a map of providers and separates them into two categories: sites with testing and available COVID medication, and sites that fill prescriptions for the antiviral pills. Treatment sites include drug stores like CVS and Walgreens and grocery stores that include pharmacies like Kroger and Safeway.

What are the COVID-19 antiviral pills?

The FDA has authorized two antiviral pills for treating COVID-19: Pfizer's Paxlovid and Merck's molnupiravir, which has a brand name of Lagevrio. Both pills were granted emergency-use authorization in December of 2021.

Paxlovid is taken in a course of three pills twice a day for five days and has been authorized for anyone 12 and older. Molnupiravir is prescribed as four pills taken twice a day for five days and is only available to adults 18 and older.

How do the COVID-19 antiviral pills work?

Unlike vaccines, which guard against COVID-19 by helping create antibodies that fight the virus, both Paxlovid and molnupiravir work by hampering the virus' ability to replicate, or copy itself, within the human body. They operate in different ways, however.

Paxlovid is a combination of two drugs called protease inhibitors -- nirmatrelvir, a new medication that inhibits COVID-19 replication, and ritonavir, an existing drug that slows the liver from metabolizing nirmatrelvir, allowing it to work longer in the body. Each dose of Paxlovid includes two pills of nirmatrelvir and one ritonavir pill.

The two drugs work together to prevent replication and reduce the overall viral load in a human body.

Molnupiravir takes a different approach, disrupting the virus' ability to replicate accurately. It affects an enzyme called polymerase, which then leads to errors, or mutations, in the virus' RNA.

According to Dr. Albert Shaw, an infectious diseases specialist at Yale Medicine, "when this RNA is translated into viral proteins, these proteins contain too many mutations for the virus to function."

How effective are COVID-19 antiviral pills?

In its combined phase 2 and 3 clinical trials, Pfizer's Paxlovid pill demonstrated strong efficacy against severe illness from COVID-19. When taken within five days of symptom onset, the pill reduced the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID by 88%.

Early data on Merck's molnupiravir pill shows less success -- research from late 2021 estimated a 30% reduction in hospitalization and death from COVID-19.

Who can get COVID-19 antiviral pills?

The FDA has authorized Paxlovid for Americans age 12 and older who weigh at least 88 pounds. If you are taking other prescription medicine, be sure to review the Paxlovid fact sheet for a list of drugs -- including some cancer drugs and statins -- that should not be taken at the same time.

Molnupiravir is approved only for adults 18 and older, due to potential negative effects on bone and cartilage development. It also cannot be used by people who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant because of possible harm to the fetus. Molnupiravir should also not be used by anyone who is breastfeeding.

Even if you meet the requirements for either pill, however, that doesn't mean you'll be prescribed one if you test positive for COVID-19 at a Test and Treat location. Though the FDA allows pharmacies to dispense COVID-19 vaccines and medication, the authorizations of Paxlovid and molnupiravir specifically require a prescription from a licensed health care provider.

A report from Time indicates that out of 3,100 Walgreens drugstores with COVID antiviral pills, only 250 have providers on site who can prescribe them. And NPR notes that of the 10,000 CVS drugstore locations in the US, only 10% have on-site prescribers. If you test positive for COVID at a location without a prescriber, you'll need to schedule an appointment with a doctor or clinic, get a prescription, and then return to receive your pills, all within five days of symptoms.

Also, to even receive a prescription for COVID-19 antiviral pills, you'll need to be included in a "high risk" category. The cost and availability of the antiviral pills means they're being reserved for people with the highest risk of severe illness from COVID. That means people with compromised immune systems or underlying conditions like cancer, heart disease, diabetes or obesity, as well as people age 65 and older. 

How do I find COVID-19 antiviral pills?

Visit the official Test-to-Treat locator tool site. A search box on the left lets you find participating sites that have antiviral pills by entering an address or by sharing your current location. A slider lets you control the radius of your search, from 0 to 250 miles of your selected address.

After searching a location, results are plotted on a map to the right and listed in detail below the search. Antiviral pill providers are ranked by vicinity and divided into two categories: those sites offering testing and antiviral pills, and sites that accept prescriptions for antiviral pills. You won't be able to get treatment from those participants in the latter category without a doctor's prescription.

Screenshot of COVID-19 Test to Treat locator tool

The Test to Treat locator search tool returns a list of treatment providers plotted on a map.

Screenshot by Peter Butler/CNET

In its list of results, the Test-to-Treat locator tool includes links for making appointments at the various pharmacies or health centers. Follow the link at your selected provider to book an appointment for testing and possible antiviral treatments.

How much do COVID-19 antiviral pills cost?

COVID antiviral pills are free for now, but whether they stay that way is uncertain. Congress has failed to agree on new funding for the COVID-19 pandemic.

The White House has urged for continued COVID funding, but money for testing and treatment of uninsured Americans ended on March 22, and reimbursement claims for vaccinations ended on April 5.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.