Drugmakers racing to create effective antiviral pill for COVID-19 infection

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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4) – Three pharmaceutical companies are racing to create an effective coronavirus antiviral pill that health officials say could save lives if administered soon enough.

Time is crucial in the fight against COVID-19 and experts believe this includes potential medication that could speed up an infected person’s recovery.

“The way COVID works is generally, the virus is reproducing most actively in the first week or so. And then the immune system starts to kick in and cause damage and those patients are getting sicker,” said Dr. Andrew Pavia, the Chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Disease at University of Utah Health and the Chief of Hospital Epidemiology at Primary Children’s Hospital.

In hopes to prevent very sick COVID patients, Pfizer, Merck and Co., and Roche Holding AG are each working to create their own oral pill.

John Kriesel, an infectious diseases specialist at the U of U School of Medicine, is helping to create Pfizer’s treatment.

“In viral infections, the earlier treatment is very important. And for this drug, we believe it has to be started within five days of the onset of symptoms,” Kriesel said.

If caught soon enough, Dr. Pavia (who is also a member of the National Institutes of Health Guidelines Panel and works on the antiviral studies) said a pill could stop the virus from progressing.

“By blocking the production of virus, we can prevent the damage and immune over response and block the symptoms,” he said.

In theory, Dr. Pavia and Kriesel told ABC4 News the antiviral pill would work similarly to other antiviral medications.

“It works extremely well for things like Herpes, HIV, and Hepatitis B and it worked very well for influenza, although we have to give it very early to be effective in most people,” Dr. Pavia said.

“It really would be great if we could use a drug for COVID like we have for influenza,” Kriesel said. “We know that earlier treatment is much more effective in viral infections. This is known for many years now.”

Clinical trials are ongoing, and both healthcare professionals said if and when a pill is approved, it could be lifesaving for some.

“There will be people who will have lost immunity or refuse to get vaccinated or who are at very high risk for whom having an effective treatment could be lifesaving,” Dr. Pavia said.

But they said a vaccine remains the best prevention measure.

“There’s no substitute for immunity. Whether it’s vaccine-induced immunity or natural immunity, it really works,” Kiesel said.

“The best way to manage the risk of getting infected is to get vaccinated,” Dr. Pavia said. “Treatment is a stop-gap measure.”

Participation in Pfizer study

Utahns who are unvaccinated and contract COVID-19 may be eligible to participate in Pfizer’s antiviral drug study.

Kriesel told ABC4 News the study is double-blind, placebo-controlled; patients must have tested positive for COVID-19 with onset symptoms in the last five days; have underlying health conditions, which includes being overweight, 60 years and older, have hypertension, asthma, smoking, diabetes, or immune-compromising conditions; and are required to visit the U once.

A person does not qualify if they are vaccinated, currently hospitalized, or have kidney or liver disease. Kriesel says it’s a six month study.

To find out whether you qualify, email maryjane.tinnes@hsc.utah.edu.

“There are many people who refuse to be vaccinated,” Kriesel said. “This is an opportunity for them to enroll in a clinical trial and hopefully someday, we’ll have something to offer those people besides just supportive care in the hospital.”

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