But the pills will not be a substitute for the vaccines
A daily pill to treat Covid-19 could just be months away, according to scientists working with the clinical trials of the drugs.
Clinical trials for at least antiviral drugs are underway in an effort to find a course of treatment that could halt the coronavirus early in its course.
According to US-based news portal Kaiser Health News (KHN), the drugs under trial are a short-term regimen of daily pills that can fight the virus early after diagnosis and conceivably prevent symptoms from developing after exposure.
“Oral antivirals have the potential to not only curtail the duration of one’s Covid-19 syndrome but also have the potential to limit transmission to people in your household if you are sick,” said Timothy Sheahan, a virologist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill who has helped pioneer the therapies, reports KHN.
Antivirals are already essential treatments for other viral infections, including hepatitis C and HIV. Although the medications developed to treat and prevent viral infections in people and animals, work differently, they can be engineered to boost the immune system to fight infection, block receptors so viruses cannot enter healthy cells or lower the amount of active virus in the body.
At least three promising antivirals for Covid-19 are being tested in clinical trials, with results expected as soon as late fall or winter, KHN quoted Carl Dieffenbach, director of the Division of AIDS at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as saying.
“I think that we will have answers as to what these pills are capable of within the next several months,” said Dieffenbach, who is overseeing the antiviral development.
Miranda Kelly, a nursing assistant, and her husband, who reside in Seattle, participated in a clinical trial being conducted by Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
The couple took four pills twice a day and even though unaware of whether they received the actual medication or placebo, they reported their symptoms getting better. They recovered within two weeks.
“I don’t know if we got the treatment, but I kind of feel like we did,” Kelly told KHN.
“To have all these underlying conditions, I felt like the recovery was very quick,” she added.
According to Dieffenbach, the medication from Merck & Co and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, called molnupiravir, is a top contender among the drugs under trial.
The other two are from Pfizer, known as PF-07321332 and AT-527, an antiviral produced by Roche and Atea Pharmaceuticals.
Until now, remdesivir is the only antiviral approved to treat the coronavirus and that too is administered intravenously to patients who are ill enough to be hospitalised.
However, its limitations include not being intended for early use while the drugs under trials are being floated as packaged pills.
Timothy Sheahan, who also carried out preclinical work on remdesivir, led an early study in mice that showed that molnupiravir could prevent early disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. The formula was discovered at Emory University and later acquired by Ridgeback and Merck.
Clinical trials have followed, including an early trial of 202 participants last spring that showed that molnupiravir rapidly reduced the levels of infectious virus.
According to Merck Chief Executive Robert Davis, the company expects data from its larger Phase 3 trials in the coming weeks, with the potential to seek emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration “before year-end.”
Meanwhile, Pfizer launched a combined Phase 2 and 3 trial of its product on September 1, and Atea officials said they expect results from Phase 2 and Phase 3 trials later this year.
Also Read - Global Covid cases top 230 million
If the results are positive and emergency use is granted for any product, Dieffenbach said: “distribution could begin quickly.”
That would mean millions of people soon could have access to a daily orally administered medication, ideally a single pill, that could be taken for five to 10 days at the first confirmation of Covid-19 infection.
The antiviral pills, however, would not be a substitute for vaccination, says Dr Daniel Griffin, an infectious diseases and immunology expert at Columbia University.
Saying the pills would be another tool to fight Covid-19, she added: “It’s nice to have another option.”
According to Griffin, if the antiviral pills prove effective, the next challenge will be to ramp up a distribution system that can rush them to people as soon as they test positive, reports KHN.
Moreover, studies are also evaluating whether the antivirals can prevent infection after exposure. The antiviral drug is are another ray of hope for life to return to normal.
In June, the US government announced that it had agreed to obtain about 1.7 million treatment courses of Merck’s molnupiravir, at a cost of $1.2 billion, given that the product receives emergency authorization or full approval.
The Biden administration also said it would invest $3.2 billion in the Antiviral Program for Pandemics, which aims to develop antivirals for the Covid-19 crisis and beyond.