Study details challenges and progress toward creating a COVID-19 drug

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen scientists perform incredible feats in a short amount of time, from developing tests to new types of vaccines. Despite these victories, experts are still working to develop an effective antiviral drug to kill the SARS-CoV-2 virus. A cover story in Chemical & Engineering News, the weekly newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society, details the challenges of and progress toward creating a drug that would help the world conquer COVID-19.

Creating a new antiviral drug is a tricky business. Viruses mutate and replicate quickly, and their structures differ greatly even within the same class, writes Senior Editor Laura Howes. Most antivirals need to target a specific viral protein to be effective, meaning that each virus often requires its own drug to treat it.

Another challenge is proving that the drug works, first in cells and animals, then humans. And while diseases like HIV, AIDS and hepatitis C have led to new advances in antiviral development, there is less of a market for other acute viral infections because of cost and need. The current pandemic has created a sense of urgency in creating new antivirals, but progress is still relatively slow compared with other developments, such as testing and vaccines.

While vaccination efforts are in full swing around the world, experts believe that an oral antiviral is the key to fully eradicating COVID-19, writes Senior Correspondent Bethany Halford. This would allow doctors to treat patients early in the course of infection, which would prevent hospitalizations and fatalities.

However, most antivirals are only effective during a brief window after infection, and they can take years to develop and bring to market. Researchers have made some progress in the last year, such as Gilead Sciences' intravenous remdesivir, but an oral version would make treatment more accessible and effective in the early stage of infection.

Scientists are also working on broad spectrum antivirals that could treat many types of viruses, including coronaviruses as a whole and novel strains of the flu, which they hope will help mitigate future outbreaks.

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