When the country learned on Thursday that President Joe Biden had tested positive for COVID-19, the White House assured the public that the commander-in-chief was being treated with a course of Paxlovid.
The antiviral is manufactured by Pfizer and has been shown, at least during trials against previous strains of the coronavirus, to significantly lower a person’s chance of hospitalization or death from COVID-19. It has usually not been prescribed to everyone who contracts the virus, but targeted primarily at older patients or those at risk for serious illness—people with heart conditions, or ones undergoing chemotherapy, for example.
At 79, Biden is the oldest president ever to occupy the Oval Office. He has been fully vaccinated and doubly boosted, and is experiencing “mild symptoms,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement. But if the main contrast between Biden’s case of a virus that has killed well over a million Americans and that of his predecessor, Donald Trump, is the availability of vaccines, the Pfizer pill has become a key part of the country’s pandemic toolkit in its own right.
The FDA granted Paxlovid emergency use authorization last December, and it can be given to children as young as 12. It combines two active ingredients, ritonavir and nirmatrelvir, which together can stop the SARS-CoV-2 protein from replicating. Treatment, which consists of taking six pills a day for five days, “should be initiated as soon as possible after diagnosis of COVID-19 and within five days of symptom onset,” according to the FDA.
Dr. Peter Hotez, director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital and a Daily Beast contributor, said in an interview on Thursday that it’s still too early to know what to expect in Biden’s case. However, it should become apparent “over the next day or two whether he’s gonna have progressive illness… and how he handles the Paxlovid.”
In some instances, patients have experienced a so-called rebound following a full course of Paxlovid, testing positive and experiencing a second onset of symptoms after seeming to beat back the virus, complete with a negative test.
“Many of us, including myself… developed rebound COVID-19, and in some cases rebound COVID-19 is even worse,” Hotez said. “This could be an ongoing issue for the president for the next two weeks.”