The White House announced Wednesday that it was ramping up purchases of Covid treatments, as federal health officials tried to reassure Americans that it was safe to travel during the holiday season — so long as they are vaccinated and avoid large gatherings.
One day after President Biden announced a new strategy to combat the staggering increase in coronavirus cases being fueled by the highly contagious Omicron variant, his coronavirus response team sought to remind the public that the nation was far better off than at the beginning of the pandemic.
“Let me reiterate what the president said yesterday: This is not March 2020,” Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said at an afternoon news briefing. “We have more tools than ever before to protect people: vaccinations, boosters, testing and treatments.”
Mr. Zients said the administration would double its existing supply — to more than one million doses — of sotrovimab, a monoclonal antibody treatment made by GlaxoSmithKline and Vir Biotechnology that is expected to work for Omicron cases. The drug, aimed at preventing high-risk Covid patients from developing severe disease, has been in very limited supply.
The product is one of three monoclonal antibody treatments authorized for recently diagnosed Covid patients, but the other two are not likely to be effective against the Omicron variant.
The federal government had previously ordered about 450,000 treatment courses of the GlaxoSmithKline treatment, including 300,000 expected in January. Now, the company is expected to make available about 600,000 additional doses in February and March, officials said.
Physicians across the United States, though, are worried about the days immediately ahead. Hospital officials in Houston, Chicago and Washington State said on Wednesday that they had stopped providing the monoclonal antibodies made by Eli Lilly and Regeneron, which had been a mainstay of treatment, because they were not effective against Omicron. Top New York City hospitals made the same decision in recent days.
The effective formula, sotrovimab, is for now in short supply. Dr. Shireesha Dhanireddy, a professor of medicine at the University of Washington, said the allocation shipping on Wednesday for the entire state was about half the usual size.
In Washington State and elsewhere, coronavirus cases are rising and hospital staff members are falling ill or staying home because of an exposure.
“It’s just a tough holiday season,” Dr. Dhanireddy said.
Dr. Marcus Plescia, medical director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said there was concern nationwide about how quickly Omicron’s rise had depleted the tools used to fight the coronavirus. He said quantities were so short that he was concerned they would not go to those who need them most.
“People who are more affluent, more connected, that’s who’s going to take advantage of this limited supply,” he said. “People who are low income, people of color are not going to get access to it. Disparities will be further pronounced by this.”
In addition, the administration will have more than half a million doses of a newly authorized drug from AstraZeneca that may work against Omicron available in January, and Mr. Zients said the White House was “preparing to purchase significantly more across the next three months.” Rather than being for infected patients, it is authorized for preventing Covid in Americans with weakened immune systems who have not been adequately protected by vaccines.
The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday authorized the first antiviral pills for Covid, a treatment from Pfizer known as Paxlovid, for the same group of high-risk patients eligible for the antibody treatments. Merck’s similar product, known as molnupiravir, is also expected to win clearance this week.
Omicron cases have skyrocketed since the variant was first identified in southern Africa at the end of November, and by last week, it already accounted for roughly three-quarters of all new cases in the United States. Many of those cases are occurring in vaccinated people, who tend to experience either mild symptoms or no symptoms.
Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tried on Wednesday to calm the nerves of a worried nation.
“If you’re wondering how to stay healthy and protect your loved ones this winter, please get vaccinated, get boosted. Wear a mask in public indoor settings, and take a Covid-19 test before gathering with others,” she said. “We’re at a critical point, and how well these measures are implemented by all of us, caring for ourselves and for one another, will largely determine the outlook of the coming weeks and months ahead.”