The U.S. government will invest $3.2 billion to develop antiviral pills for Covid-19, the Department of Health and Human Services announced on Thursday. Such a treatment could keep people out of the hospital and potentially save many lives in the years to come, as the virus becomes a perennial threat despite the distribution of effective vaccines.
A number of other viruses, including influenza, H.I.V. and hepatitis C, can be treated with a simple pill. But despite more than a year of research, no such drug exists for the coronavirus. Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s program for accelerating Covid-19 research, invested far more money in the development of vaccines than of treatments, a gap that the new program will try to fill.
The new influx of money will speed up the clinical trials of a few promising drug candidates. If all goes well, some of those pills might become available by the end of this year. The Antiviral Program for Pandemics will also support research on entirely new drugs — not just for the coronavirus, but for viruses that could cause future pandemics.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a key backer of the program, said he looked forward to a time when Covid-19 patients could pick up antiviral pills from a pharmacy as soon as they tested positive for the coronavirus or develop Covid-19 symptoms. His support for research on antiviral pills stems from his own experience fighting AIDS three decades ago.
At the start of the pandemic, researchers began testing existing antivirals in people hospitalized with severe Covid-19. But many of those trials failed to show any benefit from the antivirals. In hindsight, the choice to work in hospitals was a mistake. Scientists now know that the best time to try to block the coronavirus is in the first few days of the disease, when the virus is replicating rapidly and the immune system has not yet mounted a defense.
Many people crush their infection and recuperate, but in others, the immune system misfires and starts damaging tissues instead of viruses. It’s this self-inflicted damage that sends many people with Covid-19 to the hospital, as the coronavirus replication is tapering off. So a drug that blocks replication early in an infection might very well fail in a trial on patients who have progressed to later stages of the disease.
So far, only one antiviral has demonstrated a clear benefit to people in hospitals: remdesivir. Originally investigated as a potential cure for Ebola, the drug seems to shorten the course of Covid-19 when given intravenously to patients. In October, it became the first — and so far, the only — antiviral drug to gain full F.D.A. approval to treat the disease.
Yet remdesivir’s performance has left many researchers underwhelmed. In November, the World Health Organization
Go to the news source: Covid-19 Live Updates: The Latest on Cases, Vaccines and Variants