Story at a glance

  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services confirmed agency collaboration on new COVID-19 antiviral medications.
  • The potential drugs are not substitutes for vaccines but would ideally prevent severe illness.

The Biden administration is slated to invest more than $3 billion in new COVID-19 antiviral medicines in the president’s push to develop treatments for the coronavirus and combat the outbreak outside of injectable vaccines. 

Confirmed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on Thursday, the forthcoming antiviral medicines will be part of a collaboration between different HHS agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and its National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.

The program is formally dubbed the Antiviral Program for Pandemics (APP), whose mission is to develop safe and effective treatments to fight COVID-19. 

Antiviral drugs work to prohibit the further development of a virus once inside the human body. Other viruses like influenza also have specific antiviral treatments to help prevent severe cases of an infection. In regards to the COVID-19 virus, antivirals would ideally prevent hospitals from overcrowding and further prevent deaths related to COVID-19.

“New antivirals that prevent serious COVID-19 illness and death, especially oral drugs that could be taken at home early in the course of disease, would be powerful tools for battling the pandemic and saving lives,” said Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the President and NIAID Director.

Funding for the APP will come from Biden’s American Rescue Plan, the all-encompassing stimulus package that aims to help the country recover through the pandemic.

Forthcoming COVID-19 antivirals would likely be taken orally and be available in pharmacies nationwide. 

Antivirals are not substitutes for vaccines, since they do not prevent an infection. Rather, they work to prevent serious complications from arising once an infection occurs. 

Vaccinations are still highly encouraged by public health officials. 

“An easily administered oral antiviral drug would be an important part of our therapeutic arsenal that would complement the great success of our vaccine efforts,” said David Kessler, Chief Science Officer for the Biden Administration’s COVID-19 Response. “Even with very effective vaccines, some people may remain vulnerable to the virus, including people who are immunosuppressed or who are unvaccinated.”

Early in the pandemic, one antiviral drug, remdesivir, was quickly approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat infections at the height of the pandemic in 2020.

While remdesivir, developed by Gilead Sciences, was shown to help recovery times, its performance in clinical trials was contested, with the World Health Organization not endorsing its administration. 

The antiviral program will continue to work past COVID-19. NIAID officials write that research and development funding and resources will also work to develop antivirals for other pathogens that have potential to grow into a pandemic, including paramyxoviruses, bunyaviruses, togaviruses, filoviruses, picornaviruses and flaviviruses.

Published on Jun 17, 2021