Can a simple pill treat COVID? A new initiative from the NIH wants to find one

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Vaccines have been crucial to quelling the COVID-19 pandemic—and that’s an understatement. The billions of dollars put into Operation Warp Speed, along with other investments made by private pharmaceutical companies, to develop the vaccines will continue to save lives as cases of COVID-19 lower. 

But the crux of vaccines’ effectiveness is that the innoculations prevent people from getting a bad infection to begin with. There are far fewer viable medications available that successfully treat COVID-19 once the disease develops. A new initiative from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) aims to fill that gap by developing better antiviral drugs—not just for COVID-19, but for future pandemics as well. 

On Thursday, the Biden Administration announced that it would invest $ 3 billion, taken from the American Rescue Plan, for COVID-19 antiviral development strategy. 

“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 President and the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director, in a statement from the NIH about the announcement. 

A major part of the plan will be to, as the release puts it, “accelerate and expand” efforts to test new drug candidates for COVID-19. Another portion of the plan’s funds, $ 1.2 billion, will focus on other antiviral drug therapies not just for COVID-19 but for other severe viral infections as well. 

The research and money invested so far in antiviral drug development has largely fallen short. Even the one FDA-approved drug to treat COVID-19, remdesivir, hasn’t achieved significant success. Crucially, the drug needs to be taken early on in the course of the disease for it to work effectively. That’s hard, though, given the drug must be given intravenously—it’s not something you can pick up from your local pharmacy. 

[Read more: What we know about the Delta and Kappa COVID variants]

Similarly, monoclonal antibodies, like those made by Regeneron, must also be administered through an IV andWhat we know about the Delta and Kappa COVID variants are most successful if given early. A better therapy would be one that treats COVID early on in the disease via a pill, but little funding has gone into the development of drugs like these. That’s what this new initiative is aimed at exploring. 

For example, The New York Times points out two drug candidates, AT-527 and PF-07321332, developed by Atea Pharmaceuticals and Pfizer, respectively. AT-527 was originally developed for hepatitis C and some preliminary studies suggested it might help people with COVID-19. The other, PF-07321332, began as a potential treatment for SARS, which Pfizer later modified to prevent COVID. Researchers at Pfizer are currently working on adapting the drug from its current IV formulation to a pill-form, which takes time and money invested into clinical trials. It’s this kind of drug development that the recent investment could push forward.

As the current pandemic has shown, fighting a viral epidemic requires more than just effective vaccines. For one, vaccines will never be 100 percent effective, even in those with healthy immune systems. They also take time to develop, even at warp speed. Having drugs, especially in accessible pill formulations that can easily be accessed with a doctor’s prescription, will be key to continuing to combat COVID-19—and future viral pandemics as well.

Claire Maldarelli

Author: Claire Maldarelli
This post originally appeared on Science – Popular Science

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