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Could antiviral pills change the COVID-19 pandemic?

November 30, 2021


Almost two years have passed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that reshaped the world as we knew it. The virus responsible for the disease not only infected millions of people around the world, but also changed the way people live, work and spend their free time. Despite important progress in delivering vaccines and medicines to those who need them, the pandemic remains one of the most important issues the world still faces. However, new antiviral pills might provide people everywhere with good reason to hope that their lives will soon return to normal.

Companies like Merck and Pfizer have already announced that new antiviral pills to treat COVID-19 will soon be available by prescription, while other major pharmaceutical companies are also working on developing and delivering new drugs. Moreover, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to soon authorize the two pills, and to continue to work with the US government and other partners in finding other new solutions to address the global crisis. Although vaccines and social distancing measures, as well as the decision of wearing face masks, are now the best methods available of fighting against the pandemic and the virus that caused it, antiviral pills might soon change the game.

Why do we need antiviral pills?

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began almost two years ago, people have discussed the importance of developing and delivering safe and effective vaccines. However, vaccines are designed to protect people before they have been exposed to a virus, which makes them of little or no use for those who have already contracted SARS-CoV-2. Unlike vaccines, antivirals are drugs or treatments that prove effective against viruses, drugs that can help the body fight and eliminate those viruses, reduce the symptoms of a viral infection, and ultimately shorten the length of the disease. 

In October, Merck announced that a new antiviral pill seemed to prevent severe disease if administered within days since the COVID-19 symptoms appeared. According to the company, the new antiviral called Molnupiravir lowered the risk of hospitalization or death by half, when compared to placebo. As scientists and doctors around the world started to look at the new pill as a potential game-changer for the pandemic, Pfizer quickly followed with another good news. According to a study, Pfizer’s new antiviral pill Paxlovid also reduced the risk of hospitalization or death by an incredible 89%, when compared to placebo.

Before and after the two new antivirals

According to scientists, only a handful of drugs are actually effective in treating COVID-19. Until the development of the two new antivirals, doctors could only use antiviral monoclonal antibodies to treat patients who are not hospitalized. Moreover, antiviral monoclonal antibodies administration proved to be a difficult thing, because all patients who receive them have to be monitored by a medical professional in a clinic or in an otherwise controlled environment. This makes access to monoclonal antibodies difficult, simply because many patients don’t have access to an administration site nearby. Unlike antiviral monoclonal antibodies, antiviral pills like Molnupiravir and Paxlovid can be used at home.

Maybe even more important may be the fact that some of the new antiviral pills now in development or in testing may prove effective against new variants of the virus that causes COVID-19. Pfizer already announced that not only does Paxlovid have near 90% efficacy in preventing hospitalizations and deaths in high-risk patients, but a recent study also suggests that this new pill is also effective against the new Omicron variant of the virus. Although no pill is yet approved as an effective antiviral treatment for COVID-9 in the US, both Pfizer and Merck have submitted applications for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to the FDA recently.

If authorized, the two antiviral pills developed by Merck and Pfizer could be not only the first two oral antiviral drugs used for the treatment of COVID-19, but also two strong weapons to be used in the fight against the pandemic. Although vaccination will probably remain essential for preventing the disease and for slowing the spread of the virus, only an effective antiviral treatment can help those who are already suffering from COVID-19. Furthermore, the two antiviral pills will probably join vaccines, social distancing measures and masks wearing in forming the necessary tools we need to finally stop this global crisis.