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COVID treatment has improved, but many wish for an easy pill
If Priscila Medina had gotten COVID-19 a year ago, she would have had no treatments proven safe and effective to try. But when the 30-year-old nurse arrived at a Long Island hospital last month, so short of breath she could barely talk, doctors knew just what to do. They quickly arranged for her to get a novel drug that supplies virus-blocking antibodies, and “by the next day I was able to get up and move around,” she said. After two days, “I really started turning the corner. I was showering, eating, playing with my son.” Treatments like these can help newly diagnosed patients avoid hospitalization, but they are grossly underused because they require an IV. Other medicines for sicker patients can speed recovery, but only a few improve survival. While vaccines are helping to curb the pandemic, easier and better treatments are needed, especially as virus variants spread. “We’re seeing more and more young people get into serious trouble … Serious disease requiring hospitalization, and occasionally even tragic deaths,” the U.S. Government’s top infectious disease expert, Dr.
Anthony Fauci, recently told the National Press Club. The biggest need is for a convenient medicine such as a pill “that can prevent people with symptoms from getting worse and needing hospitalization,” he said. Here’s a look at what’s on the horizon and the options now. A PILL ON THE WAY? Developing drugs for respiratory diseases is tough, partly because doses have to be high enough for the medicine to reach deep into the lungs yet not so high that they’re toxic. Research on treatments also was slower because the U.S. Government initially gave priority to vaccines. It wasn’t until the end of April 2020 that the first COVID-19 treatment showed benefit in a big government-sponsored study. That drug — remdesivir, sold as Veklury by Gilead Sciences Inc. — remains the only one approved for COVID-19 in the U.S., though some others, such as the one Medina received, are authorized for emergency use. Remdesivir also is the only antiviral COVID-19 medicine — it interferes with virus reproduction — and “we really, really need a bunch more,” National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins said at a recent seminar. Several companies, including Pfizer, Roche and AstraZeneca, are testing antivirals in pill form. Farthest along is molnupiravir, from Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics. It doesn’t seem to help hospitalized patients but shows promise in less sick ones, and a large study should give results this fall, the companies said. If it pans out, it could be taken at home when symptoms first appear, similar to how antiviral drugs for the flu are used now. The NIH also is seeking a home-use option in a study that is testing up to seven drugs already used for other diseases. Even vaccines are being tried as treatments. Some people with “long COVID” said their lingering symptoms improved after vaccination. OPTIONS FOR OUTPATIENTS There’s one choice now: Antibody drugs, which can cut the chances of needing to be hospitalized by 70% if given within 10 days of the start of symptoms. Eli Lilly and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals are authorized to supply their treatments to patients at high risk of serious illness, and the U.S.