More Australians will be eligible for COVID-19 antiviral drugs from Monday in an attempt to reduce the number of people in hospital.
About 4,000 people are receiving medical care for the virus across the country, with health authorities concerned the cases will continue to rise in the weeks ahead.
Under the current rules, the drugs are restricted to Australians who are 65 years or older with particular risk factors such as obesity, diabetes, chronic respiratory conditions, not being fully vaccinated, or living in a remote area with limited access to health care.
Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people aged 50 years or older who have two risk factors, and younger people who are severely immunocompromised also have access to the medication.
However the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee (PBAC), which recommends which drugs should be listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, have suggested changes to the eligibility criteria due to additional evidence around the effectiveness and safety of the medicines, as well as the changing epidemiology of COVID-19.
It comes just days after Australia’s vaccine advisory body changed the rules around booster doses so that anyone aged over 30 can get a fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine from Monday.
Who can access antivirals from Monday?
Any Australian who tests positive to COVID-19 and is over the age of 70 will be able to access antivirals on the PBS from Monday.
Known as Lagevrio and Paxlovid, the drugs cost $6.80 for a concession card holder and around $40 for others.
A script can be written by GPs.
People aged over 50 with at least two risk factors for severe disease, as well as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people aged 30 and older with at least two risk factors will also be eligible.
A broader range of chronic respiratory conditions have been added to the risk factors list, but are yet to be publicly outlined.
Currently people aged 18 and older who are severely immunocompromised or have severe physical or intellectual disabilities requiring residential care, as well as people with cerebral palsy or down syndrome can request antivirals and that remains the same under the changes.
Health Minister Mark Butler said he was hopeful expanding the eligibility would help ease pressure on hospital systems.
“COVID cases and hospitalisation numbers are climbing, particularly with the new variants,” he said.
“These oral antivirals dramatically reduce the risk of severe disease particularly for older Australians and will help keep people out of hospital.”
Who can’t take antivirals?
Australians who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not take antivirals and those with severe kidney or liver disease should avoid Paxlovid.
The medical advice recommends that anyone on birth control should use extra contraception if they are taking antivirals.
Men who use Lagevrio are advised to use contraception while taking the antiviral and for three months after.
For those who can access the medication, treatment needs to begin as soon as possible after a person notices symptoms of COVID-19.
Health Minister Mark Butler said it was important that people kept in contact with their GP.
“People can get antivirals after speaking to a doctor, but they need to act fast,” he said.
“Speak to your GP and make a plan for what you will do if you get COVID, so you can start taking antivirals as soon as possible after your positive result.”
More than 1.3 million courses of antiviral medicines have been purchased by the federal government and more than 73,000 Australians have already used the medication.
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