The federal health minister, Mark Butler, has backed calls for the eligibility criteria of Covid anti-viral drugs to be expanded to more Australians, as the nation battles a winter wave of the pandemic.
It came as New South Wales health minister, Brad Hazzard, added his voice to calls for Lagevrio and Paxlovid to be made more widely available and said he did not agree with current federal eligibility rules and was hoping they would change.
“I’m hopeful the federal body that gives the advice [the Therapeutic Goods Administration] will do what is necessary to make sure that antivirals are more accessible to a broader age group than is the situation,” he said.
In the face of spiking Covid case numbers, the federal government recently launched communication campaigns to encourage Australians to receive vaccine boosters and consider the use of anti-virals Lagevrio and Paxlovid, which are taken soon after Covid diagnosis to lessen symptoms.
But medical experts pointed out the drugs were only subsidised under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme for people aged over 65 with two high-risk factors, people over 75 with one high-risk factor, or any immunocompromised person. Paxlovid can also have side-effects if taken with some other drugs, while Lagevrio is not recommended during pregnancy or breastfeeding.
Australia recorded more than 36,000 new cases and 46 Covid-related deaths on Tuesday, according to data tracking website CovidLive.
After more than 10,500 were recorded in NSW alone, Hazzard made a plea for people to get vaccinated, stay home if unwell, and follow hygiene measures like hand-washing. He also expressed concerns that the antivirals, which needed to be given in the first days of symptoms appearing, were not being made widely available.
“Antivirals at the moment are limited in their usage for a number of reasons which I don’t necessarily agree with,” he said.
“I understand there may be some challenges in the formalities and I’m hopeful that may be curtailed or at least circumvented. We’re having discussions with the federal government about those issues at the present time. So hopefully we’ll see some announcements on that in the near course.”
Victorian branch president of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, Anthony Tassone, recently called for the PBS eligibility criteria to be changed to prevent doses from being discarded. But the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners vice-president, Dr Bruce Willett, recommended authorities “tread carefully” in considering whether the PBS restrictions should be eased.
Butler said last week that the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee, which decided which drugs will be subsidised under the PBS, would “continue monitoring the eligibility criteria” for the antivirals and “may recommend changes”. The group was set to meet this week.
Butler’s office said on Tuesday there had not yet been any changes to eligibility criteria, but the government has made a submission to the PBAC to expand eligibility criteria.
“I want more people to be eligible for these wonderful anti-viral treatments that are very effective in preventing severe disease, hospitalisation and even death,” Butler said.
“That’s why we’ve made a submission to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee to expand that eligibility, to bring in a greater number of people into those medications.”
“Too few people are eligible for subsidy under the PBS. We want more people to be eligible.”
Butler said he wanted to see more older people given access, and said he would support eligibility criteria being lowered to include people without high-risk factors.
“Expanding the age, reducing the number of risk factors that need to be demonstrated, making this an easier process,” he said.
However he said evidence did not show the anti-viral drugs had large benefits for young people. Butler hoped any changes would be updated “very soon”.
He also poured cold water on calls for fourth doses of Covid vaccines to be made available for all, suggesting a Wednesday meeting of the Australian technical advisory group on immunisation (Atagi) to review vaccination strategy might make only small changes or none at all.
The minister said he would be “surprised” if Atagi expanded eligibility to all age groups, instead suggesting the changes could see current age restrictions of 65 years lowered to 50 or 55.
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