Am I eligible for COVID-19 antiviral medications?

When academic, author and disability advocate Dr Sharon Boyce contracted COVID in April, she and her doctor were scared about what might happen.

“I do have lots of issues with breathing, lots of issues with my health and auto immune and I’m on high level cortisone and have diabetes,” she said.

The Toowoomba resident was being monitored in a virtual hospital ward and had antiviral medication delivered to her door by paramedics.

“It was very scary about the what if [of having COVID], but once I got the antivirals and started them, I didn’t have major problems,” she said.

“I did have issues with breathing and coughing especially, which was very difficult for me with my neck, but the antivirals seemed to stop and calm that down and maybe not get as bad as what it may have done.”

Dr Boyce says more awareness is needed about the potential benefits of the medications.

“I think there really needs to be a lot more information out there about what antivirals are, what they do, how good they can be and what they can do for people to break down those barriers of fear.”

Sharon holds up anti-viral medication she uses
Dr Sharon Boyce took antiviral medication for COVID when she caught the virus earlier this year. (ABC News: David Chen)

Acting CEO of Queenslanders with Disability Network, Michelle Moss, urges people living with disability to discuss antivirals with their doctor.

“Have that plan in place and have that conversation with your GP early, so that when it does happen you’re prepared and you can get access to the antivirals that are making a difference for people,” Ms Moss said.

“I’ve had a conversation with two people with disability this morning and both of them were not aware that there are antivirals, so I think it’s a really important thing that we get the message out there.”

michelle smiles
Queenslanders with Disability Network’s Michelle Moss says some people living with disability could be given access to antivirals. (Supplied: Queenslanders with Disability Network)

Queensland GP and vice-president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, Dr Bruce Willett, said while awareness about the medications had grown “an awful lot”, there was still room for improvement.

“They do prevent people from having to go to hospital and ICU and even death, so it’s really important to get them and really important to get them early,” he said.

“Anyone over 50, if you’re visiting your GP for other reasons, perhaps have a brief talk about whether or not you do qualify and what you should do in the event that you get COVID, so you have a plan and you’re pre-prepared.”

Who is eligible for COVID antivirals?

In early July, the federal government expanded eligibility for the two oral COVID-19 treatments available in Australia.  

The Department of Health and Aged Care says you may be eligible if you have tested positive for COVID-19 and are:

  • 70 years and older, regardless of risk factors and with or without symptoms
  • 50 years or older with two additional risk factors
  • Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, 30 years or older and with two additional risk factors

The risk factors include:

  • living in residential aged care
  • living with disability with multiple conditions and/or frailty (but not limited to living in supported accommodation)
  • neurological conditions like stroke or dementia and demyelinating conditions e.g. multiple sclerosis, Guillain-Barre Syndrome
  • chronic respiratory conditions including COPD, moderate or severe asthma
  • obesity or diabetes (type I or II requiring medication)
  • heart failure, coronary artery disease, cardiomyopathies
  • kidney failure or cirrhosis
  • living remotely with reduced access to higher level healthcare.

If you’re aged 18 and over and test positive, you may be eligible for antiviral treatments if you are moderately to severely immunocompromised.

The conditions include:

  • blood cancer or some red blood cell disorders (thalassemia, sickle cell disease)
  • transplant recipient
  • primary or acquired (HIV) immunodeficiency
  • chemotherapy or whole-body radiotherapy in the last 3 months
  • high dose corticosteroids or pulse corticosteroid therapy in the last 3 months
  • immunosuppressive treatments in the last 3 months
  • Rituximab in the last 12 months
  • cerebral palsy or Down Syndrome
  • congenital heart disease
  • living with disability with multiple conditions and/or frailty.

How do the oral medicines work?

Dr Sharon Boyce holds a box of antiviral medication
Dr Sharon Boyce holds a box of antiviral medication she began taking after getting COVID-19. (ABC News: David Chen)

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) approved the COVID-19 antivirals Paxlovid and Lagevrio in late January for the treatment of adults who are at increased risk of progression to hospitalisation or death.

They work by inhibiting replication of the virus and should be given as soon as possible after diagnosis of COVID and within five days of the start of symptoms.

The medicines are taken orally twice a day for five days. They are not recommended in pregnancy or breastfeeding.

The TGA said “neither product is intended to be used as a substitute for vaccination against COVID-19”.

How can someone with COVID get antivirals?

Dr Willett said GPs can use telehealth appointments and electronic prescriptions to help get the medicines to eligible people who test positive for COVID.

“Those prescriptions can be delivered electronically to a smart phone or to an email address and then a lot of chemists are delivering these medications,” he said.

They can also be picked up by a friend or family member and left for the patient who is isolating with the virus.

Dr Bruce Willett, Qld chair of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners
Dr Bruce Willett advised people to call pharmacies ahead of time to check the availability of medications. (ABC News: Tim Swanston)

There have also been reports of some people finding it hard to track down a chemist with the medication. 

The Pharmacy Guild of Australia’s website has a search function showing community pharmacies participating in the rollout.

Dr Willett suggested calling ahead.

“If they’re struggling to get these antivirals from one pharmacy, give a call to a couple,” he said.

“They’re expensive medications and it sometimes costs chemists quite a bit to stock them and that’s often limiting the amount of supplies that they’re able to keep in their pharmacies.”

He said GPs get asked quite a lot if people can get antivirals ahead of time “to just keep them in the drawer”.

But he said they can only be prescribed after an individual tests positive for COVID.

Health Minister Mark Butler said the two drugs “normally cost more than $1,000”.

But because they’ve been listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, the charge “will only be $6.80 for a concession card holder, and around $40 for everyone else”.

Queensland Health says “you will need a positive RAT or PCR test result” to get antivirals.

Vice president of the Australian Medical Association Dr Chris Moy has urged those eligible for a antivirals or who work alongside immunocompromised people to get a PCR test if they had any symptoms.

“By the time [a RAT] may go positive, it may be too late to get these antivirals. We need you to go out there straight away, get a PCR test,” Dr Moy said.

“If you’re positive, then we can get the ball rolling to give you these potentially life-saving treatments.”

Free RATs to continue for some Queenslanders

A positive COVID test is the first step in getting antiviral treatments.

The Queensland government yesterday announced free rapid antigen test kits will be available at Queensland Health facilities after the federal government’s program came to an end.

“Pensioners, people with disabilities and healthcare card holders will be able to access up to five test kits per month over the next three months,” Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said in a tweet.

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