There’s a promising new soldier in America’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s a pill; an antiviral pill.
Three promising antivirals are being tested in clinical trials by major pharmaceutical companies with results expected by late fall or winter, according to Carl Diefenbach, director of the Division of AIDS at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is overseeing the development.
Diefenbach said this week the top contender is a medication from Merck and Co. and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics called molnupiravir that is being tested in Seattle. Pfizer, Roche and Atea Pharmaceuticals are also doing clinical trials.
The antivirals work by interfering with COVID-19’s ability to reproduce in human cells. Treatment would involve a short-term regimen of daily pills to fight the virus early after diagnosis, likely a week or two.
According to a news report by Kaiser Health News, “antivirals are already essential treatments for other viral infections, including hepatitis C and HIV. One of the best known is Tamiflu, the widely prescribed pill that can shorten the duration of influenza and reduce the risk of hospitalization if given quickly.”
That familiarity for Americans may help bridge the gap in the fight against COVID-19. As of this week, 185 million Americans have been fully vaccinated, but that represents only 55.8 percent of the population. That figure rises to about 64 percent when we include people who have gotten one vaccination.
Wisconsin echoes those numbers with 3.2 million people fully vaccinated, which is 56.3 percent of the state’s population.
For a variety of reasons — distrust of science; reluctance to take an “experimental shot” until there is a track record of its safety; political or religious reasons or even just fear of needles — an estimated 78 million Americans remain unvaccinated.
The bad news is that COVID-19 deaths in this country — fueled by the Delta variant — are still running at a pace of more than 1,000 per day. At that rate, the U.S. can expect more than 100,000 COVID-19 deaths by the end of the year.
The antiviral pill likely won’t come soon enough to drop those numbers, but it should be ready by next year — that’s the hope. Antiviral pills are not intended to supplant vaccinations, but they could provide a valuable new tool in blunting the hospitalizations and deaths and the misery that the pandemic has rained on the U.S. and the world.