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U.S. Investing Into a Pill to Treat Covid, and the Investment is Going Well


September 30, 2021

The US is funding, to the tune of nearly $4 billion, to develop pills to fight COVID early in the course of infection, potentially saving many lives in the years to come.

The Antiviral Program for Pandemics, will speed up the clinical trials and, if all goes well, some of those first pills could be ready by the end of the year

Influenza, H.I.V. and hepatitis C, can be treated with a simple pill. Now it is time for COVID.

Say you wake up in the morning, you don’t feel very well, your sense of smell and taste go away and you have a sore throat. You can call up your doctor and say  I have Covid and I need a prescription.

Scientists have found 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.

So far, only one antiviral has demonstrated a clear benefit to people in hospitals: remdesivir.

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 recommended against using the drug.

Companies began a second study last fall, this time testing the drug on people recently diagnosed with Covid-19. That trial is continuing, and Merck is recruiting volunteers with a higher risk of infection, such as older people with obesity and diabetes. The trial should deliver clear results by October.

Another drug the government is considering is AT-527, developed by Atea Pharmaceuticals.

The compound has already proven safe and effective as a treatment for hepatitis C, and early studies suggested it might also work against Covid-19.

The other drug was created by scientists at Pfizer. Last spring, the scientists decided to modify its old structure so that it would work against the new coronavirus’s protease.

More than 200 Pfizer researchers joined forces on the effort on the molecule, known for now as PF-07321332.

The drug had been designed to be taken intravenously, but the Pfizer researchers succeeded in altering its structure to work as a pill. When mice were given the drug orally, it reached high enough levels in the body to block the coronavirus. Pfizer launched a clinical trial in March to study its safety in people, and expects to move to later-stage testing next month.

Experts are urging a fully integrated system, people will need to gain access to the drugs as soon as they test positive.

The government will also spend up to $1.2 billion on research centers where scientists will carry out early-stage studies on drugs that block the coronavirus in other ways. Some drugs may interfere with other essential viral proteins, while others may make it impossible to copy the virus’s genes.

The program will support not only research on pills that work against coronaviruses, but also against other high-risk pathogens, such as flaviviruses, which cause diseases such as dengue fever and West Nile fever, and togaviruses, which cause mosquito-borne diseases like chikungunya and eastern equine encephalitis.