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‘This is a therapy that is available.’ Biden's positive COVID-19 test helps raise awareness of treatments

President Joe Biden tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday. While the new omicron variant has caused an increase in cases, Northeastern experts say that his good prognosis represents the strides we have made in the fight against COVID-19. AP Photo/Evan Vucci

President Joe Biden has tested positive for COVID-19, he announced on Twitter on Thursday.

Biden, who is 79, said he is experiencing mild symptoms and that he continues to work. He is vaccinated and double boosted, according to a White House press release, and he is taking Paxlovid, an antiviral drug that is approved for high-risk COVID-19 cases.

Northeastern experts say that thanks to these measures, Biden’s prognosis is likely very good, making his case a success story in the fight against COVID-19. And as a new variant becomes widespread, Biden’s positive test may also help raise awareness of treatments that are now widely available.

It’s not surprising that Biden contracted COVID-19 considering his lifestyle and the state of the pandemic, says Neil Maniar, professor of practice in the Department of Health Sciences. The nature of his job means that Biden, who recently returned from trips to the Middle East and Massachusetts, interacts with groups of people both indoors and outdoors, often unmasked.

However, Maniar says, this doesn’t mean he was being irresponsible considering the state of the current variant. While we don’t know what variant of COVID-19 Biden contracted, it is likely one of the highly contagious omicron variants that is currently in circulation.

Neil Maniar, director of the Master of Public Health program and a professor of the practice in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences, and Mansoor Amiji, Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences.
Neil Maniar, director of the Master of Public Health program and a professor of the practice in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences, and Mansoor Amiji, Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“This is an impressively transmissible variant,” he says, noting that cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are on the rise in the United States. “The mutations in the BA.5 variant seem to enable it to evade the immunity that is offered both through vaccinations and the immunity that often will be conferred through prior infection.”

Mansoor Amiji, distinguished professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Northeastern, adds that on top of the highly infectious nature of the variant, Biden’s “density of virus exposure”—both the level of exposure in the air and the time spent being exposed—was likely very high during his travels. In addition, Biden’s last booster was on March 30, 2022, and his protection against COVID-19 may have declined between then and now.

Despite the virus’s ability to penetrate the barriers that the vaccine and boosters created, the mildness of Biden’s symptoms is a sign that things are working the way they should, says Maniar. Even when vaccines do not succeed in preventing infection, they do succeed in preventing serious illness, hospitalization and death.

Biden’s situation is a marked difference from former President Donald Trump’s case of COVID-19, which was much more severe. Trump tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 2, 2020, before vaccines were available, and he was hospitalized with trouble breathing, The Boston Globe reports. There, he was placed on oxygen and was reportedly almost placed on a ventilator. Amiji says that Trump was taking a cocktail of antibodies, and that his oxygen levels were declining, a dangerous sign.

Unlike Trump and Kamala Harris, who contracted COVID-19 in April and had no symptoms, Biden has more preventative care and treatment options available. When Trump contracted COVID-19, he received treatment that was far beyond what the average American would have received in a hospital, the Associated Press reported. And Harris faced criticism for taking Paxlovid at a time when it was much less accessible in the United States.

Now, Paxlovid is much more accessible, and if there is a silver lining to Biden’s illness, it may be that more people may learn that it exists.

“For those who qualify, it’s important to start taking Paxlovid,” says Maniar. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved the drug for everyone, the list of qualifying conditions is extensive.

“It’s important for individuals to know that this is a therapy that is available, but you have to take it as soon after symptom onset as possible,” Maniar says. Paxlovid should be taken within five days of the onset of symptoms. On top of vaccinations and boosting, “that further reduces your risk” of developing severe illness, he says.

Maniar hopes that the news of Biden’s positive test will remind the public that COVID-19 is still among us. The resumption of normal activities is a good thing, he says, but everyone should get vaccinated and boosted, wear a mask in crowded indoor spaces, and remember that Paxlovid is a treatment option.

“COVID is not behind us. We still need to be aware of the fact that we have a highly transmissible variant that is currently the predominant variant,” Maniar says. “We still need to exercise caution.”

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