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The Biden administration is hoping antivirals in pill form will be effective in treating COVID-19 symptoms. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
  • The Biden administration has committed $3 billion toward the development of antiviral medications.
  • The hope is the pills will effectively treat COVID-19 symptoms as well as be ready for use in future pandemics.
  • Experts say the goal of the program is a good one, but they’re uncertain if it can be accomplished.

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In an effort to deal with the present and look toward the future, White House officials have committed $3 billion for the development of antiviral therapies.

In announcing the new funding, Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, said the money would accelerate the development of antivirals to treat COVID-19 as well as prepare for other possible pandemics.

“There are few treatments that exist for many of the viruses that have what we call ‘pandemic potential,’” Fauci said in a press briefing this past week.

“Antivirals can and are an important complement to existing vaccines, especially for individuals with certain conditions that might put them at a greater risk. For those who vaccines may not be as protective, we know that there are many people who are immunosuppressed, in which vaccines, at least initially, may not give an optimum response,” he said.

“And it also adds a line of defense against other unexpected emerging things, like variants of concern that we are currently dealing with.”

The Biden administration’s COVID-19 strategy promises to speed up the clinical testing of antiviral therapies already in development, as well as discovering new antiviral medications.

Dr. Dean A. Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of California at Davis, said the program is a noble goal, but in reality, it may be difficult to execute.

“If it’s successful, it’s a great idea. I’m just wondering what the chances are for it to be successful,” Blumberg told Healthline.

“There are a lot of different challenges,” he said. “One is identifying an effective therapy or preventative therapy, and the other is making sure that it doesn’t have significant side effects. Then, you want to make sure that it is able to be delivered orally… in a pill form.”

Currently, remdesivir (Veklury) is the only antiviral approved for use in COVID-19, but it needs to be given in a hospital intravenously. There have also been questions about how effective remdesivir is in treating COVID-19 symptoms.

The development of new antivirals that could be taken via pill, Blumberg said, would make a significant difference.

“Having an oral therapy, a pill, available to prevent or treat a pandemic illness such as COVID would be wonderful. Just imagine what it would have been like if we had had something in place over a year ago at the beginning of the pandemic that people could have just taken a pill to decrease symptoms and severity of illness, avoid hospitalization and ICU admission, and prevent death,” he said.

“It would’ve bought us much more time to develop vaccines. That would’ve been fantastic. It would’ve prevented a lot of the need for the lockdowns. It’s a really laudable goal to have,” Blumberg said.

Antivirals work by disrupting the life cycle of viruses and interfering with pathogen growth.

This allows your immune system more time to gain some immunity and fight pathogens. Depending on the illness, this can make symptoms less severe or prevent illness completely.

While there are numerous antibiotic options to treat bacterial infections, there are only a few options for viruses.

“We don’t have as many treatments for viruses in general as we do for bacteria. There’s a whole host of antibiotics, but really you can count on one hand the viral diseases that really are effectively treated. There’s influenza, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV. There’s a handful of viral diseases that effective therapies have been developed against,” Blumberg said.

He said there are many promising approaches to antiviral therapies currently in development, but cautioned that it could take decades to develop reliable therapies against viruses with pandemic potential such as the coronavirus.

“I don’t know that this is going to be a breakthrough that’s going to happen in the next 5 or 10 years. It may take many generations to develop something like that,” Blumberg said.

“Every time there’s an outbreak, there’s a lot of attention paid to public health, vaccine development, and treatment of pathogens, and then interest wanes,” he said.

“This has happened time and again. It’s happened with SARS the first time around. It happened with influenza H1N1, Zika virus, and Ebola virus, and then the momentum just doesn’t seem to be maintained. So, I’m not sure it’s going to be maintained this time around either,” Blumberg said.

“I’m very concerned about that, even though right now, there’s a lot of support for public health and the development of these therapies,” he said.