Antiviral Pill Could Help Contain the Pandemic

Antiviral Pills Could Help Contain the Pandemic

In order to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s crucial as many Americans get vaccinated as possible. Things are improving in that area, as 80% of the population ages 12 and up has now received at least one shot of the vaccine. For those who are not vaccinated and for the vaccinated people who do get infected, new tools will soon be available to help reduce the likelihood they’ll face a serious case or die.

The pharmaceutical company Merck announced in October it had developed an antiviral pill to treat COVID-19 that reduces the risk of hospitalization or death by roughly 50%, but new data shows it appears to be 30% effective. Pfizer announced in early November it had developed an antiviral pill that reduces the risk of hospitalization or death by 89%. Neither has been approved by the FDA, but if they are, they could help change the nature of this pandemic in a major way. 

Wenshe Liu, a professor of chemistry at Texas A&M, tells The News Station both vaccines and antivirals are “essential” for containing the pandemic.

“Antivirals are critical for patients who have developed COVID-19. Vaccines are preventative,” Liu says. “They cannot be used in treatment. Antivirals can be used for both prevention and treatment. 

“For people in ICUs, antivirals will potentially save their lives.”

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Both of these antivirals help reduce the replication of the virus in the body, Liu says. Merck’s antiviral creates errors in the virus’ genetic code to do this. Pfizer’s drug binds to an enzyme called a protease that helps COVID reproduce and basically disables it. 

Because Merck’s drug affects the virus’ genetic code, it could cause COVID mutations, so Liu said we need to be careful about how we use it. Pfizer’s pill doesn’t do this, so it can be used for prevention and treatment without those concerns.

If these kinds of treatments become available, it will help reduce the burden hospitals have been dealing with since the beginning of the pandemic, Liu says. Hospitals being backed up not only run out of room for COVID patients but people seeking other critical medical treatments. 

One problem that may arise is these drugs may be sold at a price many patients simply can’t afford. The best way to avoid getting stuck with that bill is to do whatever you can to avoid getting infected in the first place. 

Douglas Richman, a professor of pathology and medicine at the University of California, San Diego, tells The News Station preventative medicine is better and cheaper than having to seek treatment, so people should get vaccinated. The vaccine is free, and these antivirals will likely be expensive once they’re on the market. 

“This drug and the others to come are welcome additions and may also be very useful for those who cannot fully benefit from vaccination, like the immunosuppressed; however, from a public health point of view, nothing should discourage vaccination,” Richman says.

Having drugs available people can simply take at home if they get infected will mark a new chapter of the pandemic. They’re not 100% effective and need to be taken soon after you test positive for COVID to be most effective, but they’ll make a big difference.

COVID-19, like the viruses that caused past pandemics, is not going away. The true goal is to get to a place where it’s no longer a major public-health threat. It has to become endemic. Extensive vaccinations and antivirals like these that will likely soon be approved by the FDA could get us there.

Thor Benson is an independent journalist who has contributed to The News Station, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone and many other publications. Find him on Twitter at @thor_benson.

Thor Benson is an independent journalist who has contributed to The News Station, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone and many other publications. Find him on Twitter at @thor_benson.

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