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Biden is being treated with the COVID drug Paxlovid to speed his recovery


President Biden has COVID.


Yeah. He says he's doing fine, though. And he released a video saying as much yesterday.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Symptoms are mild. And I really appreciate your inquiries and your concerns. But I'm doing well. I'm getting a lot of work done.

MARTIN: The president's doctor prescribed him a course of Paxilovid antiviral pills.

FADEL: NPR's Pien Huang joins us now to share the latest on the president's condition and this common COVID treatment. Hi, Pien.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So the president says he's feeling fine. What do we know about his condition?

HUANG: Well, the latest is that the president has a runny nose. He's kind of tired. And he has an occasional dry cough. That's according to Dr. Kevin O'Connor, the president's physician, who's promised to give daily updates on that condition. It's not clear yet how the president got COVID. But it's everywhere these days. In terms of the timeline, the president started feeling tired after a long day on Wednesday. Thursday morning, he tested positive for the coronavirus, first on an antigen test, then on a PCR test.

Now, the president is vaccinated. He's had two booster shots. And he's taking work calls while isolating in the White House residence - so far, seems to have a pretty mild case of COVID. But given the president's age - he's 79 - and some of his health conditions, his doctor started him on a course of Paxlovid. He joins more than 2.7 million COVID patients who've gotten the drug here in the U.S.

FADEL: OK. So remind us how these antiviral pills work.

HUANG: Well, so it's a five-day course of pills. You take them twice daily. And the president started them yesterday, within a day or two of showing symptoms, which, according to the current guidelines, is ideal. See, the pills need to be started within five days of getting symptoms because they basically work by stopping the virus from replicating in the body. And like a lot of other patients, the president has also had to adjust his medications to be able to take Paxlovid safely. For the time being, he stopped taking pills that lower his cholesterol and thin his blood to avoid drug interactions that could be dangerous.

FADEL: How well does Paxlovid work? What do we know about that?

HUANG: Well, when the pills were first authorized in the winter, they were considered almost 90% effective at cutting the risk of getting hospitalized. This was a result that was found in people who were unvaccinated, with risk factors for severe COVID. Now many people are starting with a lower risk because they've been vaccinated, or they've recovered from COVID or both. Dr. Scott Dryden-Peterson at Mass General Brigham Hospital in Boston said that for COVID patients like Biden, who are around the same age, who are vaccinated with the same underlying conditions, the risks of getting hospitalized may have dropped to as low as 1%. Still, he says, taking Paxlovid cuts even that minimal risk in half.

SCOTT DRYDEN-PETERSON: The vast majority of patients do want to take it. They want to reduce the risk. Of course, none of us know what will happen in the future. But this therapy does seem to prevent severe complications of COVID, and so most patients are opting for that.

HUANG: Some people have reported that their COVID symptoms do come back after completing a course of Paxlovid. And it's not currently clear how frequently this happens or - but so far, the rebounds are generally mild, and patients could be infectious again. And another Paxlovid development this month is that the government is now allowing pharmacists to prescribe these pills, which opens up the possibilities for the drug to be more accessible across the country.

FADEL: NPR's Pien Huang, thank you.

HUANG: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK'S "CAN'T TALK NOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.