Flu season is already underway. Deaths have been reported in multiple states and health officials are urging people to get vaccinated as soon as possible. But there is some good news. The US Food and Drug Administration announced yesterday that there's a new flu drug to relieve symptoms.
Xofluza (that's the brand; the generic name for the drug is baloxavir marboxil), made by Genentech, has been approved to treat acute, uncomplicated influenza in patients 12 years of age and older, according to a press release.
Unlike other antivirals such as Tamiflu or Relenza — which are taken twice daily for five days — Xofluza is a single-dose pill. It's meant to be taken within 48 hours after the onset of symptoms, such as a fever, chills, or runny nose. It can reduce the severity and duration of illness, which is great because the flu can be super miserable.
The wholesale cost of the pill is $150, which is in line with other leading antivirals, and the company offers coupons that lower the price to $30 for patients with commercial insurance, a Genentech spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
Xofluza is the first new antiviral drug with a different mechanism of action to be approved by the FDA in nearly 20 years, the agency reported.
"With thousands of people getting the flu every year [...] having safe and effective treatment alternatives is critical. This novel drug provides an important, additional treatment option," FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said in the release.
The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses, and it can cause mild to severe symptoms. In serious cases, the flu can lead to hospitalizations or death. So how do antivirals work, and what's the deal with Xofluza?
Antiviral drugs fight against the flu by keeping the viruses from reproducing in the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When taken early, they can lessen the severity of symptoms and shorten the course of illness by about a day.
The extent to which you benefit from antivirals may also depend on your age and health. In people with a higher risk of developing flu-related complications (the elderly, children, people with underlying conditions), early treatment with antivirals can prevent serious illness that requires hospitalization. In people who are hospitalized, antivirals can reduce the risk of complications and death, according to the CDC.
If you have a milder illness and aren't considered high-risk, you may still be prescribed Xofluza by a doctor — but most healthy people who get the flu don't need to be treated with antivirals, the CDC noted.
Xofluza also works in a different way from other flu treatments, like Tamiflu and Relenza, to attack the virus in the body. So it may be effective at fighting against those strains of the flu that become resistant to other antiviral drugs, according to the agency.
However, Xofluza is not meant for children under the age of 12 or people who have already developed complications of the flu.
So does this mean you can skip the flu shot? Absolutely not. Antivirals only treat symptoms; they do not prevent you from getting sick. So they aren't a substitute for the seasonal flu vaccine, which is the best way to protect yourself from getting sick. The flu shot also prevents the spread of flu to others — including vulnerable people who are more likely to be hospitalized or die from the flu.
The flu can be a dangerous and deadly illness, even for healthy adults. Last year, an estimated 80,000 people died from the flu and its complications in the US, including 180 children.
The flu shot isn't perfect, but some protection is always better than none. Even if you still get the flu after you get vaccinated, the shot will likely reduce the severity of symptoms.
The CDC is recommending that everyone six months and older get vaccinated by the end of October, which is coming up. If you have any questions or concerns about the flu shot, talk to your doctor.
Genentech's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.