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U.S. To Pour Billions Into Antiviral Treatments For Coronavirus, Other Viruses


All right, let's talk about these antiviral medications that Allison mentioned and what they might mean as we fight COVID. With me now is Dr. Timothy Sheahan. He's a virologist with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Good morning to you, Dr. Sheahan.

TIMOTHY SHEAHAN: Good morning, Noel. Thanks for having me.

KING: We're glad to have you. So $3.2 billion the government is putting into antiviral medications. This would be a pill that people would take. And what would it do? And how would we get it?

SHEAHAN: So I think one thing that we should kind of make super clear to your listeners is what an antiviral pill means.

KING: Sure.

SHEAHAN: So unlike a vaccine, which is intended to prevent you from getting COVID, an antiviral drug or therapy is something that you would take after you know you're sick. So you would go to the doctor or the pharmacy, you would get your COVID test, and once you know, it's positive you would get a prescription drug to take home with you and just immediately start taking this medication to stop the virus from replicating in your body.

KING: OK, I got the flu once in 2011. I had to take Tamiflu. It sounds like this is something very similar.


KING: You go to the doctor, and the doctor says you take it.

SHEAHAN: Exactly.

KING: OK, so we know from the past year or so of coverage that there's a range of therapeutics that have been used against COVID-19. Why do we need a new antiviral pill? What is the thing that it brings us?

SHEAHAN: Yeah, so most of the drugs that have been employed to treat COVID-19 have been repurposed - so they were designed and developed for some other disease prior to the pandemic. So I think what this new money will do will, you know, accelerate the development of COVID-specific drugs. So I would anticipate these things being better at treating COVID than these drugs and other medicines that were designed to treat other things.

KING: And so who's most likely to benefit from them?

SHEAHAN: So lots of different people - so first and foremost, the people who are not getting the vaccine. So as the previous segment alluded to, there's still pockets of Americans who are not getting vaccinated, so those communities could benefit from drugs like those that will be developed in the future. Secondly, there are people who probably - the vaccine, after they got it, it didn't work as well as it's supposed to. And that could be because they have their - a preexisting condition. Or sometimes older people - vaccines don't work as well in older people. So there could be people who get the vaccine who still get really sick. They might not die from COVID, but they might end up in the hospital. So drugs like these that we're talking about could help prevent the hospitalization of people like that.

KING: Is there any fear among doctors that if people know a pill is available that will treat their symptoms, they'll be like, oh, it's not that important for me to get the vaccine, given that there's already so much vaccine hesitancy?

SHEAHAN: Yeah, I mean, that is a huge risk. You know, just because you have an antiviral drug that you can take, depending on when you take it, it could work or not work. So, for instance, drugs like we're talking about work best when you give them as soon as possible, as soon as you get a runny nose, as soon as you start to feel sick. If you've had COVID for a week or two, a drug like we're talking about, an antiviral drug, isn't really going to benefit you. So it's a complicated question, but I'm sure there is that risk. But I'm hopeful that people won't lean on antivirals rather than take the vaccine for this.

KING: And do you think that we could have an antiviral pill relatively soon, the way we got a vaccine relatively quickly?

SHEAHAN: Yeah, I hope so. And, you know, remdesivir is the first kind of approved antiviral drug for COVID, but it's an IV drug, so I - there are a couple oral antivirals similar to remdesivir coming down the pipe that are in various stages of clinical development. The next one is probably molnupiravir. So if - yeah.

KING: Dr. Timothy Sheahan, a virologist with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Thanks so much for your time. We really appreciate it.

SHEAHAN: Thank you. Have a good morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.