The Future of Antiviral Pills and How COVID-19 Started It
A vaccine won’t get us completely out of this pandemic. Epidemiologists around the world are increasingly accepting the reality that SARS-CoV-2 and its variants will become endemic viruses like the seasonal flu. Doctors want to administer pills that people can take conveniently at home when symptoms first appear.
The COVID pandemic has now made new antiviral treatments a priority. People at risk for severe covid-19 could soon have a transformative treatment option: antiviral pills that can be prescribed and taken at home to prevent the worst outcomes. The U.S. government spent more than $22 billion, the UK $20 billion and Canada $24 million last year funding drugmakers to make a Covid vaccine, an effort that led to at least five highly effective shots in record time. Now companies are investing in the development of antiviral pills to treat Covid-19 as well as future virus outbreaks, potentially saving many lives in the years to come.
Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced that its experimental pill Paxlovid, when taken shortly after symptoms develop, dramatically reduced the risk of hospitalization and death by 89 percent when given within three days after the start of symptoms. It could help bring the curtain down on the most severe phase of the pandemic, at least in wealthy countries where most adults have been vaccinated. A different pill Molnupiravir, developed by Merck and its partner, Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, is already under review by federal regulators.
Vaccines will remain the primary protection against the coronavirus, but easy-to-take medicines that blunt infections could be a powerful addition to the medical tool kit to manage a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people worldwide— and equip the world for a future in which the coronavirus continues to circulate. The pills would augment the medical armamentarium, not replace highly protective vaccines
This Antiviral Program for Pandemics will also support research on new drugs, not just the coronavirus. This includes high-risk pathogens that could cause future pandemics such as flaviviruses, which leads to dengue fever, West Nile fever, and togaviruses.
The hope is that the antiviral can help us close out this chapter of the epidemic. Even if the next generation of pills doesn’t arrive for a few years, many scientists say that the research will be a good investment.