drug shortages
Maskot/Getty Images

People with COVID-19 at risk for severe disease had a lower risk for death and hospitalization if they took nirmatrelvir (Paxlovid) or balapiravir (Lagevrio) compared to no treatment at all, a new study finds.

The drugs can be beneficial if used by people who aren’t hospitalized to treat people with omicron infections, according to the report published Thursday in JAMA Network Open.

The researchers looked at 68,867 people diagnosed with COVID-19 at the Cleveland Clinic between April 1, 2022 and February 20, 2023. That’s when the omicron variant evolved from BA.2 to BA.4/ BA.5, then shifted to BQ.1/BQ.1.1 and finally changed to the XBB/XBB.1.5 variant.

The people in the study had a higher risk for developing severe COVID-19. Of the people studied, 42.7% were over the age of 65, and 38.9% were male. The researchers examined how they fared within 90 days of their infection or until the end of the study, whether they took either medication or none at all. Nirmatrelvir and Molnupiravir are prescription oral antiviral medicines used to treat COVID-19. The authors didn’t focus on bebtelovimab, because the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) no longer uses it.

Taking nirmatrelvir or molnupiravir was linked to reductions in hospitalization or death, the study found. The link was observed despite factors like age, race, when they were diagnosed, and if they were vaccinated. 

Of the 22,594 people who took nirmatrelvir, 30 died within 90 days of getting the Omicron variant. Of the 5,311 people who took molnupiravir, 27 died within the 90-day span. Of 40,962 people who weren’t treated with anything, 588 died within that same time span.

“In this cohort study, both nirmatrelvir and molnupiravir use were found to be associated with reductions in mortality and hospitalization among patients infected with Omicron who were at high risk for progression to severe disease,” the authors wrote.