Could an antiviral pill beat Covid-19? The US government is pouring $3bn into research

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  • The US government is directing $3 billion towards research and development for a pill to combat Covid and other viruses
  • The aim is for the antiviral to treat people in the early stages of Covid infection
  • If successful, it may be rolled out in the US by the end of 2021

The US government has invested $3.2 billion in the development of antiviral medication to treat Covid-19, the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, in the early stages of infection. The research will also expand to focus on other viruses with pandemic potential, which could help to better fight off any future virus outbreaks.

The announcement was made on 17 June 2021 by the Department of Health and Human Services, which added that existing clinical trials assessing promising treatments will be sped up. 

Named the Antiviral Program for Pandemics, it “will respond to the urgent need for antivirals to treat Covid-19 by spurring the availability of medicines to prevent serious illness and save lives”, the release stated.

According to the programme’s website, the widespread availability of highly effective antivirals that can be taken orally at home early during infection, similar to antiviral treatment for seasonal influenza (flu), would save lives and prevent hospitals from becoming overburdened

Hospitals worldwide have been overrun with Covid patients during the pandemic with healthcare staff stretched to their limit. Furthermore, a recently published study found that people in Africa hospitalised with Covid are more likely to die than patients in other parts of the world – with a shortfall in critical care resources and a lack of specialised staff playing a potential role in higher death rates, Health24 reported.

Other antiviral pills

Other viruses, including influenza and HIV, can be treated with a pill. Tamiflu (oseltamivir), for instance, is an effective medication for the flu available on prescription in South Africa. It can be taken within 48 hours after symptoms appear and can lessen the severity of symptoms and shorten recovery time, thereby reducing the chances of flu-related hospitalisation.

Ready by end of year

“New antivirals that prevent serious Covid-19 illness and death, especially oral drugs that could be taken at home early in the course of disease, would be powerful tools for battling the pandemic and saving lives,” said Dr Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the US President and Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

Reporting by The New York Times notes that if all goes well, some of the antiviral treatments could be ready before 2022. 

In the months following the beginning of the pandemic, certain drugs were tested with disappointing results, including the much-hyped anti-malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine. Thus far, only remdesivir has shown some, although underwhelming, promise, but in its currently approved formulation, the drug cannot be taken orally. 

Molnupiravir

Another antiviral that may show promising results is molnupiravir, first developed in 2019 and tested against viruses such as influenza. Molnupiravir was initially tested in Covid-19 human trials run by German multinational science and technology company, Merck, but seemed to have no positive effect on hospitalised patients, the company said.

Merck stopped the trial but began a second study, and are now looking to recruit higher-risk individuals, such as the elderly with diabetes, and test whether the drug has any effect in the early course of infection. Results are expected around October 2021.

Another drug, called AT-527, has previously been proven safe and effective in treating hepatitis C, and might work for Covid cases, early studies suggest. The drug is on the US government's radar. Pharmaceutical companies Roche and Atea are currently testing it in a late-stage Covid clinical trial.

Of course, should this research turn out to have encouraging outcomes, it will not come without its challenges. People will need to gain access to the treatments as soon as they test positive for Covid, Dr David Kessler, the chief scientific officer of the Biden administration’s Covid-19 response team told The Times.

*For more Covid-19 research, science and news, click here. You can also sign up for our Daily Dose newsletter here.

READ | Covid-19: Delta variant symptoms include headache, runny nose – can feel 'more like a bad cold'

READ | Coronavirus variants can evade antibodies by spreading via super-cells – new research

READ | Refresher: Covid-19 vs flu vs allergies – how to tell the difference

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