The United States is devoting $3.2 billion to advance development of antiviral pills for COVID-19 and other dangerous viruses that could turn into pandemics.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, announced the investment Thursday at a White House briefing as part of a new “antiviral program for pandemics” to develop drugs to address symptoms caused by potentially dangerous viruses like the coronavirus.
The pills for COVID-19, which would be used to minimize symptoms after infection, are in development and could begin arriving by year’s end, pending the completion of clinical trials. The funding will speed those clinical trials and provide additional support to private sector research, development and manufacturing.
Fauci said the new program would invest in “accelerating things that are already in progress” for COVID-19 but also would work to innovate new therapies for other viruses.
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“There are few treatments that exist for many of the viruses that have pandemic potential,” he said.
But he added, “vaccines clearly remain the centerpiece of our arsenal.”
The U.S. has approved one antiviral drug, remdesivir, against COVID-19 and allowed emergency use of three antibody combinations that help the immune system fight the virus. But all the drugs have to be infused at hospitals or medical clinics, and demand has been low due to these logistical hurdles.
The U.S. government has been trying to raise awareness of the treatments, connecting people who test positive for COVID-19 with information about nearby providers.
Health experts, including Fauci, have increasingly called for simpler pill-based drugs that patients could take themselves. Some drugmakers are testing such medications, but initial results aren’t expected for several more months.
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The currently available drugs have mostly been shown to help patients avoid hospitalization or shorten their recovery time by several days.
Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. poured more than $19 billion into rapidly developing multiple vaccines. But less than half that amount went toward developing new treatments. That shortfall has become increasingly concerning as the vaccination campaign slows and experts emphasize the need to manage the disease in millions of Americans who may never get inoculated.
The biggest need is for a convenient pill that can help keep patients with early symptoms of COVID-19 from developing severe disease and needing hospitalization.
Several companies, including Pfizer, Roche and AstraZeneca, are testing antivirals in pill form.
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Until this week, the only medicines shown to boost survival were steroids given to patients sick enough to need extra oxygen and intensive care. But on Wednesday, U.K. researchers reported that one of the antibody combinations successfully reduced deaths in a large study of hospitalized COVID-19 patients.
News of the Biden administration’s plans for the antiviral pills was first reported by The New York Times.