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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

Mount makes history as dark horses Chelsea seize Champions League initiative vs Porto

Chelsea fans drew comparisons between midfield maestro Mason Mount and all-time top scorer Frank Lampard as the 22-year-old’s smartly-taken goal helped give the Blues the initiative in their Champions League tie with Porto.

England midfielder Mount struck with Chelsea’s first effort on goal at the Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan in Seville, rolling Zaidu Sanusi expertly before driving into the bottom corner just after the half-hour mark. 

Full-back Ben Chilwell then pounced on a defensive error to double the lead with five minutes to play, as Chelsea secured a 2-0 win and took a giant stride towards the Champions League semi-finals.

Travel restrictions between Portugal and the UK mean both legs of the quarter-final against Porto are being played in southern Spain, with Chelsea classed as the visitors on Wednesday night.

In a game which was tight for long periods, it was Mount who broke the deadlock, adding to the burgeoning reputation forged primarily under former manager Lampard and which is continuing to flourish under new boss Thomas Tuchel.

Mount’s smart strike was his eighth of the season across all club competitions, but a first ever in the Champions League as he became the Blues’ youngest ever scorer in the knockout stages of the tournament.

After being tutored for so long by Lampard, many Chelsea fans hailed Mount as the heir apparent to the mantle held by Lampard as a marauding midfield goalscorer during his own playing days.

Wednesday’s result for Chelsea also means they continue to establish themselves as dark horses for the Champions League this season under Tuchel, after easing past La Liga leaders Atletico Madrid in the last round and now placing one foot in the last four of the competition. 

Following the domestic embarrassment to West Brom at the weekend, Tuchel opted to leave the experience of Thiago Silva on the bench, going for a backline of Andreas Christensen alongside Antonio Rudiger and César Azpilicueta.

Up front, Kai Havertz led the line through the middle while Tuchel kept the faith with Timo Werner despite his recent woes in front of goal, and Mount was trusted to provide thrust from midfield.

Porto proved they were no pushovers by dumping out Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus in the last round, and it was the Portuguese champions who started the livelier, pegging Chelsea back and keeping Edouard Mendy on his toes without testing the Frenchman fully.

But as Porto pressed, it was Chelsea who struck with their first effort on goal in the 32nd minute.

Italian metronome Jorginho slipped a wonderful pass into Mount, who escaped the attentions of Sanusi expertly before finding the bottom corner.

Firmly established as a crucial cog in the Chelsea machine, it was proof of just how vital Mount will be for their ambitions moving forward both domestically and in Europe’s biggest club competition.

Werner had a chance to double Chelsea’s lead at the start of the second half, only to head over from a whipped cross from Mount – very much in keeping with the German’s recent goal-shy form.

Mendy was then called on to save from Porto’s Moussa Marega when the French keeper looked in danger of being caught in no-man’s land.  

Ever a menace, Pepe poked the ball into the Chelsea net following a scramble from a corner, but the whistle had gone for offside in the build-up. The London club then continued to live dangerously as Luis Diaz flashed wide of Mendy’s goal with a fierce effort.

At the other end, Havertz poked the ball wide with the goal at his mercy after Porto goalkeeper Agustín Marchesin had spilled a long-range effort from Rudiger and Werner squared the ball to his compatriot, although the offside flag was already up.

Azpilicueta also headed wide as Chelsea looked to capitalize on their strongest spell of the game.

Tuchel introduced Christian Pulisic and Olivier Giroud for ineffective German duo Werner and Havertz with 25 minutes to play, as the big-money summer signings again fell somewhat flat on the big occasion.

Pulisic had a golden chance to double Chelsea’s advantage and rattled the crossbar with a rocket of an effort, before left-back Chilwell finally increased the deficit, pouncing on a defensive error to round Marchesin and slot into an empty net.

The result puts Chelsea firmly ahead in the tie before they return to the same venue for the second leg on Tuesday, on that occasion technically as the home team.

The Londoners already know that beyond that lies a meeting with the winners of the last-eight tie between Real Madrid and Liverpool, with the Spaniards in control after their 3-1 home leg win on Tuesday night. 

With the likes of reigning champions Bayern Munich, last season’s finalists Paris Saint-Germain and runaway Premier League leaders Manchester City all in the other half of the draw, Tuchel will eye a golden opportunity to guide his team into the final, repeating the feat he achieved with PSG last season. 

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