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Biden Administration Invests $3 Billion in Developing Antiviral COVID-19 Pill

Woman holding up a pill in a science laboratory.

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Key Takeaways

  • The Biden administration is investing $3 billion in a program that aims to develop antiviral medicines for COVID-19 and other viruses.
  • These antivirals would have to be taken early in the course of the disease to be effective, similar to ones currently available for influenzas.
  • Experts say a COVID-19 antiviral medication may be available by the end of the year.

This month the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that the Biden administration is allocating $3 billion toward the development of potential COVID-19 antiviral medicines, in hopes of speeding up the process.

The Antiviral Program for Pandemics program prioritized 19 different antivirals for testing and clinical trials to evaluate how effective they are in treating individuals with COVID-19. It’s possible that one of these drugs will be available within the year, experts say.

What Is an Antiviral Drug?

Antiviral drugs are prescription medicines (in the form of pills, liquid, an inhaled powder, etc.) that fight off viruses in your body. They are only available through prescription. And they are different from antibiotics, which fight against bacterial infections.

The program is also geared towards the development of antivirals for high-risk viruses that could potentially cause other pandemics. This is just one prong of the government’s plan to be better equipped against present and future viral threats.

Why Are Antivirals Necessary?

Although 66% of adults in the United States have already been vaccinated with at least one dose, many people remain vulnerable to the virus such as those who are immunosuppressed or unvaccinated.

“It is important to continue to develop antiviral medications even though we have highly effective vaccines because not everyone will be vaccinated and we will not drive COVID-19 to zero,” Amesh Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, tells Verywell. “There will still be cases and we will still need to treat them years from now.”

The development of COVID-19 treatments is not meant to replace vaccines, but rather, complement them in the effort to reduce severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths. Getting antivirals on the market is also important in curbing potential future threats.

“It is crucial to develop antiviral drugs that are effective against the coronavirus family of viruses because there are many other threats that reside in that viral family,” Adalja says. “Development of one antiviral that works will be useful for other threats in that family that may emerge as well as for the four common-cold-causing coronaviruses that currently circulate.”

What This Means For You

There are currently no approved antiviral medications to treat COVID-19. Getting vaccinated remains to be one of the best ways to protect yourself and others from the virus. To find available COVID-19 vaccine appointments near you, visit Vaccines.gov.

How Antiviral Medicines Work

The government program intends to develop an effective pill to treat COVID-19 that anyone can conveniently purchase with a prescription when symptoms begin.

“An oral antiviral would likely be targeted towards the early stages of disease when viral replication is the primary pathophysiological activity occurring,” Adalja says. “An oral antiviral may blunt this process by preventing severe disease, preventing the need for hospitalization, decreasing contagiousness, and decreasing symptoms.”

Antiviral medicines are already being used for a variety of viral diseases. They can boost the immune system to help the body fight off a viral infection, make it difficult for viruses to bind to healthy cells, or even lower the amount of the virus present in the body. 

“Currently the only respiratory virus that can be treated is influenza,” Geoffrey Chupp, MD, Yale Medicine pulmonologist and professor of medicine at the Yale School of Medicine, tells Verywell. “There are multiple approved antiviral medications for HIV, hepatitis B, adenovirus, and CMV, so it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that we can develop effective antivirals against SARS-CoV-2.”

Influenza antiviral drugs work best when taken within two days of being sick. Based on this knowledge, researchers know that COVID-19 oral antiviral medicines will also have to be taken early in the course of the disease to become effective, Chupp adds.

As long as the global pandemic is not contained, more transmissible, severe, and evasive COVID-19 variants can circulate. This underscores the importance of the U.S. government program, which hopes to accelerate the development of effective medicines by supporting ongoing research.

“It appears that variants will continue to emerge and that people around the world will continue to get infected,” Chupp says. “Limiting the severity of illness and shortening the recovery will be important for years until it is clear the virus is no longer a threat. Swine flu is still an issue after 100 years.”

Antiviral Drug Candidates Being Tested

There is no oral COVID-19 antiviral drug available for outpatient treatment yet, but several drug candidates are currently undergoing (or about to go on) clinical trials, such as:

“In terms of oral drugs, there are a number of agents being studied,” Chupp says. “We completed a randomized controlled trial of camostat mesylate for COVID-19 outpatients. The results are pending but will be available soon.”

Experts say approval for some of these drugs may be arriving soon.

“There are at least two oral antivirals in clinical testing right now,” Adalja adds. “It is within the realm of possibility that one is able to receive approval by the end of the year.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Biden administration to invest $3 billion from American Rescue Plan as part of COVID-19 antiviral development strategy. Published June 17, 2021.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What you should know about flu antiviral drugs. Updated June 1, 2021.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID data tracker. Updated June 28, 2021.