U.S. Seeks to Boost Availability of Covid-19 Treatments as Hospitalizations Rise – The Wall Street Journal

White House officials on Wednesday are expected to outline steps the administration has taken to try to speed up the availability and access to Covid-19 treatments such as antivirals that have been in short supply amid a surge of cases of the Omicron variant.

The drugs, including Pfizer Inc.’s Paxlovid, are expected to play a critical role keeping people out of hospitals, but are in limited supply.

Officials are set to outline how they worked with Pfizer to accelerate the clinical-trial process to shave seven months off the original timeline for concluding testing, according to a person familiar with the planning. The trial results were available late last year, about seven months earlier than the original planned timeline, the person said.

To help combat Omicron, the Biden administration is opening up more Covid testing sites and delivering 500 million Covid tests to Americans. WSJ’s Daniela Hernandez breaks down why testing is still a pain point in the U.S., two years into the pandemic. Photo Illustration: David Fang

The accelerated timetable is one reason the Pfizer drug is in short supply, the person said. The U.S. has now purchased 20 million treatment courses and should have them all by June, the person said. The administration is continuing to work with Pfizer to help it further expand its manufacturing capacity, including through the Defense Production Act, the person said.

U.S. hospitals are dealing with the highest number of recorded Covid-19 patients since the pandemic began, according to federal government data. The seven-day average of patients in U.S. hospitals with confirmed or suspected Covid-19 reached 140,576 on Tuesday, exceeding the previous recorded peak during last winter’s wave.

Although evidence suggests the Omicron variant is less likely than previous variants to cause severe illness, its higher contagiousness and the sheer volume of infections have pushed up hospitalizations.

A Covid-19 testing center in Leipzig, Germany.

Photo: Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

The Omicron wave has also led to a rise in infections among employees and residents of nursing homes, threatening to cause severe illness and deaths among vulnerable old people while also compounding staff shortages.

In Europe, most countries are continuing with their strategy of accepting the rising volume of Omicron infections as inevitable, and concentrating on measures to reduce hospitalizations, especially by raising pressure on the unvaccinated minority of citizens to get shots.

In Belgium, which hasn’t imposed severe restrictions on daily life amid the spread of Omicron, case numbers doubled during the week through Sunday, the most recent period for which data are available, compared with the prior week. But over that same period, the number of patients in hospitals rose less than 10% and admissions in intensive-care units continued a monthlong decline. Deaths linked to Covid-19, a lagging indicator, fell almost 30% during the week.

In Germany, too, a rapid rise of Omicron infections hasn’t caused a surge in hospitalizations, although health experts warn that continued high numbers of cases could eventually lead to more people ending up in hospitals.

Meanwhile, new rules in Germany’s Parliament stipulating that only lawmakers who have been immunized by vaccination or prior infection can enter the plenary hall prompted a pushback from some legal experts and far-right opposition party Alternative for Germany, which condemned the rule as “vaccination apartheid.”

Scientists are using automation, real-time analysis and pooling data from around the world to rapidly identify and understand new coronavirus variants before the next one spreads widely. Photo Illustration: Sharon Shi

In the U.K., there are early signs that the Omicron wave is running out of steam. The past week’s average of just over 157,000 daily confirmed infections is down 13% on the week before. New Covid-19 hospitalizations are up 18% on average over the previous week and deaths are 81% higher. Hospitalizations are running at less than half the record levels of a year ago.

French Health Minister Olivier Véran said Wednesday that the pattern of Omicron’s circulation seen in South Africa and the U.K. suggests that cases could hit a peak, or at least a plateau, in the coming days. France’s seven-day average of new confirmed infections is around 283,000, up 57% compared with a week ago. An average of 2,173 people are being hospitalized daily, significantly below the rates of hospitalizations in France during previous waves of the pandemic.

The French government said it would soon lift some restrictions on British people entering the country, without providing details. Gabriel Attal, the French government spokesman, said authorities would announce the change by the end of the week. France in mid-December blocked tourists and most business travelers from the U.K. in response to a surge in Omicron cases in Britain.

Turkey set a record for new infections, posting 74,266 new cases late on Tuesday, as the government warned that Omicron was becoming more dominant.

The country has avoided imposing new restrictions to contain the virus. Last week, the government shortened the isolation time for those who test positive from 10 days to one week, with the country’s health minister saying that deaths from the current wave of the virus have remained low. The country reported 137 deaths late Tuesday.

Write to Stephanie Armour at stephanie.armour@wsj.com and Jared S. Hopkins at jared.hopkins@wsj.com

The Omicron Variant

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