By Annette Pinder

While getting the flu is nothing to sneeze at, letting your doctor know that you are sick will likely result in a prescription for the antiviral pill oseltamivir (Tamiflu) that you can take at home to help shorten the course of your illness.

Now, Pfizer, the manufacturer of the mRNA vaccine currently being used to protect against Covid-19, is developing an antiviral pill to shorten the course of the virus in those who get it. According to Pfizer, when mice were given the drug orally, it reached high enough levels in the body to block the coronavirus. The pill, already in late-stage human trials, would be given at the first sign of a coronavirus infection to prevent it from becoming severe.

Recently, the U.S. government announced an allocation of $3 billion toward the effort of developing an antiviral drug to use against viruses that could cause future pandemics. Having a pill to treat COVID would be a game changer. The antiviral treatments being investigated by Pfizer are part of a class of medicines known as protease inhibitors, which inhibit the enzyme needed by the virus to replicate in human cells. Protease inhibitors are currently being used sucdessfully to treat HIV and hepatitis C.

Antiviral pills are desperately needed for Covid-19. Although vaccines are effective at preventing the virus, getting vaccines to the entire world may take years. Additionally, if people continue to refuse vaccinations, the virus will continue to mutate. Drugs being used now to treat early Covid-19 are antibodies that require infusion at a medical facility. Taking a pill, without needing to go to a doctor or hospital, would be so much easier.

If Pfizer’s antiviral medication receives authorization from the FDA, it could prevent newly infected people with Covid from becoming seriously ill and requiring hospitalization, and may even be ready by the end of this year. Pfizer says the drug, which might be given twice a day for about five days, may also be effective against the emerging variants. Pfizer is also working on an injectable anti-viral drug.

However, Pfizer isn’t the only big pharmaceutical company with a potential Covid-19 pill. Merck, and its partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, are also in late-stage clinical trials testing a drug called molnupiravir, is another potential COVID-19 pill that works through a different mechanism.

Scientists anticipate that one important challenge associated with antiviral pills is that people will need to receive them at the first signs of a COVID infection. However, if both of these pills prove to be successful, it would be great news for all of us in helping to keep Covid-19 under control in ways that influenza antiviral medications are able to do for us now. The progress we are making in science should bring us all a great deal of hope.