Calls for prescription-free COVID antiviral drugs

pharmacist speaking with customer

Pharmacists are calling for COVID antiviral medicines to be made available without the need for a GP appointment.

Vulnerable patients with COVID are having trouble accessing necessary antiviral medication. Currently, drugs such as paxlovid and molnupiravir are only available through prescription, which requires a consultation with a doctor.

But with the health system stretched to the limit, wait times to see a doctor have blown out. Patients sometimes need to wait weeks to get an appointment, by which time the window to benefit from the antivirals – three to five days after a positive test – has closed.

At the most recent national cabinet meeting, Tasmanian premier Jeremy Rockliff floated a new model for antiviral distribution whereby GPs would automate pharmacy scripts for patients most likely to use them.

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“This will enable those most vulnerable to COVID-19 to quickly access medical treatments and help ease the burden on our hospitals,” Mr Rockliff said.

Tasmania’s branch of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia backed the premier’s call, and pushed even further for people aged 70 and over to qualify for the drug automatically without the need for a prescription at all.

“In other jurisdictions, including New Zealand, there’s been a down-scheduling of the antiviral medication, so that means they are available over the counter through specific prescribing schedules,” says Helen O’Byrne, Pharmacy Guild Tasmania branch president.

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“So that means [antiviral treatments] for example for a person over 70, who doesn’t need to have any other complicating conditions … could potentially be initiated in a pharmacy, as long as that person went through strict prescription protocols.

“That would involve assessing their other medications. One of the antivirals in particular [paxlovid] has interactions with other medications.”

The push comes as federal health minister Mark Butler warned that the latest BA.5 variant of the Omicron strain is much more infectious than previous strains.

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“This third Omicron wave for 2022 is proving to be a very, very significant one,” he said.

“There were 300,000 cases or thereabouts reported over the last seven days. As of today, there are more than 5200 Australians in hospital with COVID.

“That number has increased very dramatically over recent weeks. Over the last month or so, it’s gone from something under 3000 to over 5000.”

Federal chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelly is urging Australians to work from home if possible and wear masks indoors at work.

“We know that wearing masks [does] reduce the spread and protects yourself and others,” Prof. Kelly said.

“If you’re away from home and indoors in a crowded place, I really very strongly suggest that you do wear masks.

“This will not be forever, but for the next few weeks this is the way we can actually influence the spread of the virus, protect vulnerable people in our community and also protect our healthcare systems.”

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