In a recent article published in Nature Microbiology, researchers highlighted the pace of development of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) therapies during the pandemic and the challenges that hinder the widespread availability of anticoronavirals.
COVID-19 is the third coronavirus disease in the past 20 years after severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). While the two predecessors caused severe mortality, they did not cause a pandemic. On the contrary, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) triggered a pandemic, and by 21 February 2023, it had caused more than 757 million confirmed cases, including >6.8 million deaths worldwide.
Vaccines and monoclonal antibody (mAb) treatments for COVID-19 became available within a year of the pandemic. Yet, there is a substantial need for more effective therapeutics to treat unvaccinated and immunocompromised patients and those whose vaccine immunity waned over time.
About the study
In this study, the authors highlighted four stages of SARS-CoV-2 infection that require different therapeutic interventions as critical for identifying COVID-19 therapeutic targets. At stage 1, when viral replication begins inside the host, oral or intravenous administration of monoclonal antibodies and antiviral therapies are effective. However, an ideal time for prophylactic administration of vaccines is Stage 0 preceding the infection.
Clinical trials have established that mAbs and antivirals effectively combat COVID-19 when administered up to 10 days after symptom onset and within three to five days following the onset of symptoms, respectively. COVID-19 patients in stage 2 develop viral pneumonia, cough and fever, lung inflammation causing shortness of breath, and lung aberrations, such as ground glass opacities.
The most serious is stage 3 characterized by a hyperinflammatory state or acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Some patients might also develop coagulation disorders or shock or systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS). Thus, at stage 3, a patient needs antiviral drugs and immunomodulatory therapy.
Stage 4 represents post-COVID-19 conditions when patients experience hyperinflammatory illnesses, e.g., multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children (MISC), following acute SARS-CoV-2 infection. Unfortunately, possible preventative measures and treatment for post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 (PASC) are not fully understood. It is a growing area of unmet medical need; thus, extensive research efforts are ongoing to classify PASC, which might be a conglomeration of several syndromes, and determine its cause(s).
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Treatment Guidelines Panel makes recommendations for the treatment and prevention of COVID-19. Early in the pandemic, clinicians used azithromycin and hydroxychloroquine as a possible COVID-19 treatment for hospitalized patients based on in vitro evidence of their synergistic effect on SARS-CoV-2 infection. Later, clinical trials found this combination ineffective. Similarly, the NIH panel did not specify recommendations for empirical antimicrobials.
The NIH rejected giving vitamin/mineral supplements, e.g., zinc, for hospitalized COVID-19 patients. On the contrary, they recommended prompt use of supplemental oxygenation and high-flow nasal cannula in patients with ARDS. In the absence of effective treatments, clinical recommendations by NIH continue to change and evolve.
Early drug repurposing efforts targeted nucleotide prodrugs, e.g., remdesivir (or GS-5734), AT-527, favipiravir, and molnupiravir (or MK-4482). However, only three antivirals received full Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) approval from the United States Food and Drug Administration (US-FDA), remdesivir, molnupiravir, and nirmatrelvir.
Pre-clinical characterization of remdesivir for other coronaviruses, pharmacokinetic and safety evaluation in humans in a failed clinical trial for Ebola virus, all acquired before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, enabled rapid progression of remdesivir.
A phase 3 study conducted among patients in outpatient facilities and nursing facilities showed that remdesevir administration within seven days of symptom onset decreased hospitalization risk by 87%. Thus, its approval extended to high-risk non-hospitalized patients as well. Currently, phase 1b/2a study for inhaled remdesivir, and pre-clinical evaluation of an oral prodrug based on remdesivir is ongoing.
Another randomized phase III trial evaluated ivermectin, metformin, and fluvoxamine, all repurposed drug candidates, for early COVID-19 treatment of overweight or obese adults. Earlier pivotal efficacy and clinical studies found that molnupiravir provided no clinical benefit in hospitalized COVID-19 patients.
Conversely, the MOVe-OUT outpatient study demonstrated that treatment initiated within five days of symptom onset reduced the hospitalization risk or death. Accordingly, molnupiravir attained an EUA in the US on in late 2021 for treatment of mild-to-moderately ill COVID-19 patients at high risk of progression to severe disease. However, an outpatient study suggested that molnupiravir might augment SARS-CoV-2 evolution in immunocompromised individuals.
In the USA, multiple initiatives have been undertaken to identify candidate agents that may be repurposed as COVID-19 drugs. For instance, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation launched the Therapeutics Accelerator in March 2020, wherein they adopted a three-way approach to test approved drugs, screen drug repositories, and evaluate novel small molecules, including mAbs against SARS-CoV-2.
Encouragingly, apilimod, a PIKfyve kinase inhibitor developed for treating autoimmune diseases, is being tested for COVID-19 in clinical studies. Likewise, multiple clinical trials are ongoing for camostat mesilate, an inhibitor of transmembrane protease serine 2 (TMPRSS2), an approved chronic pancreatitis treatment in Japan.
Among anti-inflammatory and immunomodulating drugs, dexamethasone, a corticosteroid, baricitinib, a Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitor, and tocilizumab have received FDA approval. Among mAb therapies, casirivimab with imdevimab and bamlanivimab with etesevimab, Sotrovimab, Bebtelovimab, Tixagevimab–cilgavimab have received FDA approval. However, as SARS-CoV-2 continues to evolve, changes in the spike protein led to EUAs being withdrawn for all mAb therapies due to loss of efficacy.
There is a vast knowledge gap regarding COVID-19 pathogenesis. Despite the absence of a viral reservoir, severe disease persists for weeks or even months after COVID-19 recovery. Another intriguing area of investigation is why autoantibodies increase over time during COVID-19. In February 2022, the government of the United States of America (USA) started a flagship program, RECOVER, to understand, prevent and treat COVID-19-related long-term health effects.
Amid decreasing vaccine uptake and waning efficacy of mAbs as SARS-CoV-2 mutates, there is a need for new, safe, and effective COVID-19 therapies for population-level deployment and the potential to reduce resistance development. Researchers need to accelerate research targeting small molecule candidates that would mechanistically target the conserved region of SARS-CoV-2 and not become ineffective across mutant strains.
To be prepared for another pandemic, a large repository of small molecules that have already progressed through early pre-clinical and clinical evaluation is needed to develop drugs, like remdesivir, developed in a short span of two years.
More importantly, research efforts should continue to advance the development of antivirals for other pathogens, including coronaviruses, in preparation for the next pandemic.