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U.S. to Spend $3.2 Billion to Help Develop Antiviral Pills for COVID

HealthDay News
by By Ernie Mundell and Robin Foster HealthDay Reporters
Updated: Jun 18th 2021

new article illustration

FRIDAY, June 18, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- After spending billions to speed the creation of COVID-19 vaccines, the United States said Thursday that it will now devote $3.2 billion to the development of antiviral pills that could stop the new coronavirus before it does its worst damage.

Along with "accelerating things that are already in progress" for COVID-19, the new program would also encourage treatments for other viruses, Dr. Anthony Fauci said when announcing the new program during a White House briefing.

"There are few treatments that exist for many of the viruses that have pandemic potential," he said, including Ebola, dengue, West Nile and Middle East respiratory syndrome.

But he added, "vaccines clearly remain the centerpiece of our arsenal."

One antiviral drug, remdesivir, and three antibody therapies are now approved to treat COVID-19. But all of those drugs have to be delivered via IV at hospitals or medical clinics.

What is needed is a convenient pill that patients could take when symptoms first appear. Some drugmakers are testing such medications, but initial results aren't expected for several more months, the Associated Press reported. The new federal funds will speed those tests and support research, development and manufacturing of the pills.

Last week, the United States said it would buy 1.7 million doses of an experimental antiviral pill from Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics if it is shown to be safe and effective. A large study of the drug, molnupiravir, should deliver results this fall. Early research suggests the drug may reduce the risk of hospitalization if used shortly after infection, the AP reported.

The federal government may seek similar deals for two other antivirals that are in late trials, Dr. David Kessler, the chief science officer of the Biden administration's COVID-19 response team, told The New York Times.

The hope "is that we can get an antiviral by the end of the fall that can help us close out this chapter of the epidemic," Kessler said.

One of the drugs the government is eyeing is AT-527, developed by Atea Pharmaceuticals. The compound is already used to treat hepatitis C, and early studies suggested it might also work against COVID-19. Roche has partnered with Atea to test it in people, and the companies are currently running a late-stage clinical trial, the Times reported.

The other drug was created by Pfizer scientists, adapted from a molecule first designed in the early 2000s as a potential drug for SARS. After being abandoned for years, the Pfizer researchers decided to modify the molecule's structure so it would work against the new coronavirus's protease. More than 200 Pfizer scientists worked on the molecule, known as PF-07321332, the Times reported.

The drug had initially been designed to be taken intravenously, but the researchers tweaked its structure to work as a pill. When mice were given the pill, it reached high enough levels in the body to block the coronavirus. Pfizer launched a clinical trial in March to study its safety in people, and expects to move to later-stage testing next month, the Times said.

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, the AP reported.

U.S. COVID death tally hits 600,000

The U.S. coronavirus death toll topped 600,000 on Wednesday, even as the country's vaccination campaign is finally curbing the spread of COVID-19.

"We've made enormous progress in the United States. Much of the country is returning to normal, and our economic growth is leading the world, and the number of cases and deaths are dropping dramatically. But there's still too many lives being lost," President Joe Biden said Monday in Belgium, where he was meeting with world leaders.

"We have more work to do to beat this virus, and now is not the time to let our guard down. So, please — please get vaccinated as soon as possible. We've had enough pain," Biden added.

In a statistical sign that the national death rate is indeed slowing, it has been nearly four months since the United States topped 500,000 deaths, while it took just over one month for the U.S. death toll to surge from 400,000 to 500,000 this past winter.

As hospitalizations and deaths have continued to drop, a growing number of states are ending many of the social distancing measures that have become emblematic of the pandemic. California and New York on Tuesday fully reopened as vaccination rates in those states reached target goals.

In Vermont, Gov. Phil Scott said his state would end all restrictions because more than 8 in 10 eligible residents have gotten at least one dose of vaccine, CBS News reported.

"It is safe because Vermonters have done their part to keep spread of the virus low throughout the pandemic and stepped up to get vaccinated. In fact, no state in the nation is in a better or safer position to do this than we are," Scott said in a statement.

Behind Vermont, 13 states and the District of Columbia have delivered at least one dose to at least 70% of their adult residents, CBS News reported. Sixty-five percent of American adults have had at least one dose nationwide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But the pace of vaccinations has slowed. Only around 350,000 Americans are getting their first vaccine dose each day , according to recent CDC figures — the lowest recorded pace of shots since vaccination efforts first began late last year, CBS News reported.

In the meantime, U.S. health officials have stepped up warnings about faster-spreading coronavirus variants. While studies suggest all of the vaccines authorized in the United States remain effective against all "variants of concern," federal health officials have warned of lower effectiveness in those who have not yet gotten their second dose.

On Monday, the CDC joined other public health organizations around the world in classifying the so-called Delta variant as a "variant of concern." Projections published by the CDC on Tuesday estimate the strain that first emerged in India has surged to account for about 1 in 10 cases in this country, up from less than 3% at the end of May, CBS News reported.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on COVID-19 vaccinations.

SOURCE: Associated Press; The New York Times; CBS News