Pharmacies want over-the-counter COVID-19 antiviral access in Australia, as more people look to take oral treatments

Pharmacies want over-the-counter COVID-19 antiviral access in Australia, as more people look to take oral treatments

Jan Browning had been dreading getting COVID-19.

The 74-year-old — who is recovering from lung cancer — was scrupulous in trying to avoid it, wearing masks and social distancing.

Then, while she was still in the middle of immunotherapy treatment, it happened.

“I got the positive result, did the online questionnaire [and] then my [healthcare provider] rang me,” she said.

“They sent me an oximeter, which was delivered to my doorstep.”

But it was the next element that, according to Ms Browning, made an “enormous difference”.

Jan Browning says COVID-19 antiviral medication helped with her recovery, allowing her to play sport again. (ABC News: Patrick Stone)

Later on the same day, she said, a COVID-19 doctor from her local health service called her and suggested she be put on antiviral treatment because of her past medical history.

The medication was delivered to her door step that night. After a day of treatment, Ms Browning said, she was “already starting to feel better.”

“It was such a smooth process and, I think, for me, I would have been in strife without them,” she said.

“It kept me out of the hospital. I’m playing sports again now and I feel great.”

For Canberra mother Liz Pickworth, the process was the polar opposite.

A eoman in a pink jumper with glasses looking dispondent
Liz Pickworth says she felt abandoned when sick with COVID-19.(ABC News: Ian Cutmore)

The 35-year-old has advanced cancer of the thymus gland, a rare cancer affecting fewer than one in 1.5 million people.

When she was diagnosed with COVID-19 earlier this year — when she was still receiving cancer treatment — her specialists advised her to get antivirals as soon as possible.

However, despite numerous phone calls to her medical specialists and the local COVID-19 hotline, she wasn’t able to access the medications, which would have sped up her recovery.

“I felt like I was begging for my own welfare to survive COVID,” she told the ABC.

“I felt alone, I didn’t know where to look for help. I just felt like I was going to be sick all the time.”

Liz Pickworth looking down
Despite having stage 4 cancer, Liz Pickworth couldn’t access COVID antivirals. (ABC News: Ian Cutmore )

antiviral access

Two COVID-19 oral antiviral treatments, Lagevrio and Paxlovid, have been approved for use in Australia.

The treatments help stop a virus infecting healthy cells or multiplying in the body, with more than 182,000 prescriptions dispensed across the country, according to the Health Department.

Health specialists say they have become a critical element of the country’s COVID-19 response, reducing pressure on the nation’s hospital systems.

However, their use is restricted. Under guidelines revised last month, the only people who can access them are:

  • Australians over the age of 70 who test positive to COVID-19
  • Australians aged over 50 — and Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people aged over 30 — with two or more risk factors for severe disease
  • Anyone over 18 who is severely immunocompromised or has severe physical or intellectual disabilities can also be assessed for access.