Scientists work toward an elusive dream: a simple pill to treat Covid-19

The world has vaccines that can prevent most cases of Covid-19. It even has drugs that can help with the most serious symptoms of the disease. Now what it needs is a Tamiflu for SARS-CoV-2.

It would be a pill, exquisitely calibrated to target SARS-CoV-2, with tolerable side effects and a low price tag. And it would work just as well as those antibody treatments that require an hourlong intravenous infusion, but it would come in a handy packet patients could take home.

“We’re looking for something I could give everyone in an urgent care setting who comes in with exposure or a positive test,” said Nathaniel Erdmann, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital who treats Covid-19. “An easy, oral, safe drug.”

As simple as that sounds, the process of actually developing new antiviral treatments is overwhelmingly complicated, even outside of a pandemic. Things can go disastrously wrong at countless steps along the way, whether drugs are too weak to stop the viral spread or too sloppy to be safe. And SARS-CoV-2 is consistently evolving, meaning scientists have to outfox natural selection itself to stay ahead of the game.

The common cold is often caused by a coronavirus, after all. And, as scientists ruefully joke, after billions of dollars spent on research and development, there’s still no cure for that.

 

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