The Biden administration said Thursday it would invest $3.2 billion to speed the development of antiviral pills that could treat COVID-19 and other viruses, a major step that could save many lives in future pandemics.
The Department of Health and Human Services said the plan, dubbed the Antiviral Program for Pandemics, would accelerate and expand support for clinical trials and aid further development of as-yet undiscovered drugs. The agency expressed hope it could have an oral antiviral treatment for COVID-19 authorized by the Food and Drug Administration within a year.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said the program could soon see Americans take a course of pills from home at the beginning of an illness to help prevent the worst impacts of a virus like the coronavirus, rather than end up in the hospital with a more serious case. He expressed hope Thursday the therapeutics would eventually be as useful as drugs taken to treat HIV and hepatitis C.
“New antivirals that prevent serious COVID-19 illness and death, especially oral drugs that could be taken at home early in the course of disease, would be powerful tools for battling the pandemic and saving lives,” Fauci said in a statement Thursday.
Dr. David Kessler, the chief science officer for the White House’s COVID-19 response, said the Biden administration’s investment, linked to President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, would only add to the robust vaccination program that’s ongoing across the country.
“Even with very effective vaccines, some people may remain vulnerable to the virus, including people who are immunosuppressed or who are unvaccinated,” Kessler said in a statement. “An easily administered oral antiviral drug would be an important part of our therapeutic arsenal that would complement the great success of our vaccine efforts.”
Medicine has advanced in recent decades to better treat viruses like HIV and hepatitis C, or even influenza, with antivirals. Researchers are currently testing antiviral pills that work in a similar fashion, and HHS said 19 drugs had been prioritized as part of the $3.2 billion package for testing and clinical trials in patients with COVID-19.
“Of course, as we’ve heard so often now, over the last several briefings, vaccines clearly remain the centerpiece of our arsenal against COVID-19,” Fauci said Thursday at a press briefing, per The Hill. “However, antivirals can and are an important complement to existing vaccines, especially for individuals with certain conditions that might put them at a greater risk.”
Thus far, only one drug, remdesivir, has been proven to help people in the hospital with COVID-19. The drug is the only antiviral with full approval from the FDA to treat the coronavirus, but it is not a panacea and is only available at hospitals or medical facilities via an IV.
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