The Pfizer Pill: A Work In Progress

Esther Fu, Contributing Writer

If you were to choose a treatment option between a vaccine or pill, assuming they had the same efficacy, which would you prefer? An oral drug seems to be the least painful option, but realistically, will it match up to the vaccine, which has a 95% efficiency, and how will it work? There are many unanswered questions around the Pfizer pill which is currently in the experimental stage, however, it seems that it will be helping us get one step closer to a shift to normalcy.

On April 26th, the CEO of Pfizer, Albert Bourla, told CNBC that the company would most likely make a revolutionary antiviral treatment available to the public by the end of 2021. Pfizer’s groundbreaking oral treatment works as an inhibitor to stop COVID-19 enzymes from reproducing viral cells; thus, killing the deadly virus. Upon hearing this news, we must not be overly hopeful of the new invention and should stay skeptical about its reliability. Pfizer has been presenting the drug as the disruptive cure to COVID, which can resolve many deployment hurdles and individual vaccine hesitancy. However, we must keep in mind that it is still in the experimental stage and over-expectation may give people a false sense of hope and relief, which may prove harmful in the long run.

Seeing that the previously publically available AstraZeneca vaccine presents damaging side effects, it is very unlikely that the Pfizer pill will be perfect when it comes out. Although rare, a few who were administered the AstraZeneca vaccine developed rare and severe blood clots. Like many drugs, there may be a few cases where a pre-existing condition will interfere negatively with the Pfizer pill, and in turn, cause complications. Therefore, we should be cautious about any new medication—this should be kept in mind for Pfizer’s new invention. Professor Penny Ward, a pioneer of the development of Tamiflu, spoke to the Telegram, “the question will be about how the drug is tolerated” in a statement which shared similar reservations.

The pill will be most effective when administered in a certain time frame, before or after exposure to the virus, or even when symptoms start appearing.

Since March, Pfizer has been conducting clinical trials of the novel antiviral drug in the US and Belgium. The clinical subjects have been administered the Pfizer pill with Ritonavir, a treatment used to treat HIV. Research has found that Ritonavir can act as a booster to the Pfizer pill, and increases its overall effectiveness.

There are many differences between the Pfizer pill and the vaccine. The pill will be most effective when administered in a certain time frame, before or after exposure to the virus, or even when symptoms start appearing. On the other hand, the Pfizer vaccine works to create a protective response from the immune system which fights off viruses, meaning that it will prevent contraction of the virus after being injected. This means that the pill can act as an urgent solution to the virus, while the vaccine’s treatment effect will take more time to materialize.

Bourla claims that Pfizer is focusing on an oral treatment that enjoys many apparent advantages, “[Pfizer pill] provides several advantages and one of them is that you don’t need to go to the hospital to get the treatment … which is the case with all the injectables so far but you can get it home. That could be a game changer.” The drug is said to be possible to be administered at home, and the patient would not be required to go to the hospital or vaccination center, freeing up hospital space for others in need. Additionally, it isn’t necessary for a healthcare professional to administer the drug, and as a result, this minimizes the spread of the virus to healthcare workers as well as throughout hospitals. Because of the lack of hospital space or an individual’s fear of infection, the pandemic has affected many patients who are being treated for reasons other than COVID-19. The virus has reduced the chance of service access to patients in need of care to be medically and professionally examined for life-threatening diseases such as cancer.

Furthermore, the pill may have a spillover contribution to preventing other diseases.  A study by the Epic Health Research Network shows an 86% to 94% drop in preventive cancer screenings due to disruptions by the pandemic. The data is compiled from 2.7 million patient records in 23 states consisting of screenings for breast, colon, and cervical cancer. Pfizer hopes to help prevent this excruciatingly large drop in these evaluations in the future.

Now, this sounds too good to be true. Therefore, a few questions linger, such as: will the drug be of easy access to everyone? For example, the situation in India is frightening; there were about 380,000 new cases just in one day on April 29th. Because some parts of India are economically disadvantaged, citizens may have a harder time gaining access to critical resources during this pandemic. Thankfully, Bourla did mention the issue of equal access—specific to those developing countries that are not financially affordable. He says, “Not only because ethically, it is unacceptable, but also because in a pandemic, you are as safe as your neighbor … Setting aside the moral issues … [if they do not provide solutions for countries like India and Africa], they will become the pool where the virus will replicate and generate… so this is something that needs to be addressed.”

Despite the uncertainty, assuming that the Pfizer pill will be released on schedule, it still seems too optimistic to foresee that our lives will return to normal anytime soon. It has been an awfully hard year for people around the world; not being able to visit family, living in fear and stress, and many tangible and intangible losses. If the pill turns out to be magically successful and performs as advertised, it will have an impact on countless lives and help the world achieve its sense of normalcy and security. Let’s wait and see.