Can This Antiviral Approach Treat COVID-19?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
By targeting pathways that allow the virus to multiply, antiviral drugs could slow or stop it in its tracks.
By Andrew Hirschfeld
- Medical researchers are working to develop antiviral drugs that can act as another line of defense against the virus, even once a vaccine is ready.
- One potentially game-changing type of antiviral drug is protease inhibitors that can effectively stop the virus from multiplying in the body.
As of Nov. 19, America has lost more than 250,000 people to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Johns Hopkins University data. That’s greater than the entire population of Richmond, Virginia. Those are sons and daughters; mothers and fathers; grandparents, colleagues, friends and neighbors — gone. That’s an empty seat at your socially distant Thanksgiving or a loved one you’re not exchanging presents with during the holidays.
Vaccines will likely be the centerpiece of our medical resistance to COVID-19 once they’re ready to be rolled out. Still, scientists caution that on their own, vaccines might not be enough. Some people may still contract the coronavirus. Many people may choose not to take the vaccine at all, either out of personal preference or because preexisting health conditions prevent them from taking it.
The sooner you can slow or stop [a pathogen] from replicating, the sooner you can start to get better and stop spreading the disease.
Dr. Annaliesa Anderson, chief scientific officer for bacterial vaccines and hospital at Pfizer
It’s important to have additional lines of defense, so medical researchers are attempting to develop antiviral drugs that may help patients recover faster, hopefully without developing the most severe symptoms. It’s an approach that makes sense, say doctors like Dr. Alexander Salerno, a primary care physician at Salerno Medical Associates in East Orange, New Jersey, which has to date treated more than 8,000 COVID-19 patients and tested over 30,000 people for the virus.
A potentially game-changing approach to such antiviral drugs involves a type of antiviral drug called a protease inhibitor. These inhibitors target an enzyme — a protease — that the coronavirus uses to multiply in the human body, essentially slowing or even stopping the virus in its tracks and preventing it from spreading. This could be the difference between an illness that knocks you off your feet for a few weeks versus something that could potentially kill you.
“When you get an infection, the pathogen enters cells within your body where it can replicate and spread to other cells. The more this happens, the sicker you get,” explains Dr. Annaliesa Anderson, chief scientific officer for bacterial vaccines and hospital at Pfizer. “The sooner you can slow or stop it from replicating, the sooner you can start to get better and stop spreading the disease.”
What makes protease inhibitors particularly attractive as a potential antiviral treatment for COVID-19 is their track record: This type of antiviral drug has been shown to work against hepatitis C and HIV. And if researchers are able to turn those past successes into an approved antiviral drug against COVID-19, the implications could extend far beyond the current pandemic, say experts. That’s another reason, they say, why such a treatment would remain relevant even after a vaccine is available. “The protease inhibitor we’re investigating at Pfizer has the potential to work across different coronaviruses,” Dr. Anderson says. “So if we have other coronavirus outbreaks from other sources, it means we could potentially have a treatment ready.” Other coronaviruses that have strained public health systems over the past two decades include the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).
Protease inhibitors act on a different target than other potential COVID-19 treatments. These drugs take different approaches to preventing the virus from multiplying and could together create a bouquet of early-intervention treatment options to keep the worst effects of COVID-19 at bay.
Research has shown that antiviral medications administered shortly after the onset of symptoms were found to be effective against acute viral infections such as flu.
The availability of these antivirals could also potentially help overwhelmed hospitals focus on patients with the most severe symptoms. “Ideally we want to reduce the burden on emergency rooms and hospitals so we don’t have a repeat of March and April,” Dr. Salerno says, referring to a surge in hospitalizations in those months in the tri-state area that left medical institutions struggling. Antiviral drugs would allow patients that take them early to hopefully avoid hospitalization. “That’s the key to all of this: early detection, early diagnosis, early treatment,” he adds.
Another key element to long-term success against the virus, according to experts, is relying on credible, scientific sources for medical information. Misinformation about the pandemic, often on social media, is rampant and in some cases has even led to deaths. “I would encourage people to use the CDC, World Health Organization and listen to the academic experts in the area,” Dr. Anderson says. And the expert view is clear. If researchers are able to deliver on the promise of protease inhibitors as an antiviral treatment against COVID-19, patients might be able to get back to normal sooner and the fear of COVID-19 and its effects on society may diminish.
- Andrew Hirschfeld, OZY Author Contact Andrew Hirschfeld