With confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide surpassing 6.4 million and continuing to grow, scientists are pushing forward with efforts to develop vaccines and treatments to slow the pandemic and lessen the disease’s damage.
Some of the earliest treatments will likely be drugs that are already approved for other conditions, or have been tested on other viruses.
“People are looking into whether existing antivirals might work or whether new drugs could be developed to try to tackle the virus,” said Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, a professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy.
As of May 8, three medicationsTrusted Source had received emergency use authorization (EUA) from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — the anti-malaria drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, the anti-viral remdesivir, and a drug used to sedate people on a ventilator.
An EUA allows doctors to use these drugs to treat people with COVID-19 even before the medications have gone through the formal FDA approval process.
In mid-May, the small biotech company, Sorrento Therapeutics, announced it has an antibody drug that has been effective in early testing in blocking the virus that causes COVID-19. They say the drug could potentially be used to treat people with COVID-19 as well as help prevent infection.
These drugs are still being tested in clinical trials to see if they are effective against COVID-19. This step is needed to make sure the medications are safe for this particular use and what the proper dosage should be.
So it could be months before treatments are available that are known to work against COVID-19. It could be even longer for a vaccine.
But there are still other tools we can use to reduce the damage done by the novel coronavirus.
“Even though technological advances allow us to do certain things more quickly,” Lee told Healthline, “we still have to rely on social distancing, contact tracing, self-isolation, and other measures.”
Drug development is sometimes described as a pipeline, with compounds moving from early laboratory development to laboratory and animal testing to clinical trials in people.
It can take a decade or more for a new compound to go from initial discovery to the marketplace. Many compounds never even make it that far.
That’s why many medications being eyed as potential treatments for COVID-19 are drugs that already exist.
In a recent review in the British Journal of Pharmacology, scientists from the United Kingdom called for wider screening of existing drugs to see if they might work against the coronavirus.
They identified three stages of infection at which the coronavirus could be targeted: keeping the virus from entering our cells, preventing it from replicating inside the cells, and minimizing the damage that the virus does to the organs.
Many of the drugs being developed or tested for COVID-19 are antivirals. These would target the virus in people who already have an infection.
Lee says antivirals work better if you administer them sooner, “before the virus has a chance to multiply significantly.” And also before the virus has caused significant damage to the body, such as to the lungs or other tissues.
Dr. Robert Amler, dean of the School of Health Sciences and Practice at New York Medical College and a former chief medical officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), says both antivirals and vaccines will be valuable tools in combating COVID-19.
However, he told Healthline that “antivirals are likely to be developed and approved before a vaccine, which typically takes longer.”