RICHMOND, Va. -- Days after Pfizer announced it was testing an antiviral pill to treat COVID-19, a University of Virginia Professor said, if effective, the drug could 'take the teeth out of this whole terrible pandemic.'
At the University of Virginia, clinical trials are underway to study COVID-19.
"All of us in infectious diseases, it's what we've trained our entire career to do is to respond to this," said Dr. Bill Petri, Professor of Infectious Diseases.
Petri said as of now, some people who end up in the hospital with the virus are given an antiviral to treat it.
"We do have a drug, Ritonavir, that Patrick Jackson at UVA was part of a study that showed that this Ritonavir antiviral works to treat the virus, but you have to give that by vein. And so, it's really only for hospitalized patients," Petri said.
Scientists are working to take that a step further. On Monday, Pfizer announced it was testing an antiviral pill that could be taken shortly after becoming infected.
"If the pill works as intended, then when you get the first symptoms of COVID-19, you would take it, it's twice a day for five days. And it would keep you out of the hospital," Petri said.
He said it could also help prevent further spread.
"You probably would not be contagious for as long," Petri said. "Because if the drug works, which of course we don't know if it does work, but if it does, it is working by preventing new virus from being made. And so, that's going to reduce the number of viruses that you're exhaling when you're talking and make you less infectious, and probably the entire period of infectivity will be shortened as a result."
Petri said the drug would act as a protease inhibitor, preventing a virus from taking the long protein that it makes and breaking it into smaller pieces.
"For HIV, this was a lifesaver," said Petri. "And then even more recently, with Hepatitis C virus, Hepatitis C has gone from being an incurable cause of liver damage to being completely treated now to cure with a pill."
"We have a really great track record of medicines for HIV and for HCV, where protease inhibitors have turned the tide. And so, it's very encouraging to me to see that Pfizer has started this clinical trial," he added.
With COVID hospitalizations surging in the state, Dr. Jake O'Shea, Chief Medical Officer of HCA Virginia, said if effective, an oral antiviral for COVID could potentially serve as another tool for physicians to treat the virus.
But he said it was still too soon for doctors to prepare for that possibility.
"Right now, our main focus is on taking care of the sick people that we have in our hospitals and getting as many people vaccinated as we can," said O'Shea. "We just have to see what data comes out, comes out of the clinical trials, which will be very valuable."
O'Shea said he also hoped the possibility of a treatment didn't deter people from focusing on the most effective tool, already available.
"That is a real risk. But I hope as we continue to see evidence that vaccination is both safe and effective that more and more people will continue to get vaccinated, regardless of the availability of antiviral drugs," O'Shea said.
Petri said the expected completion for the Pfizer trial was Nov. 21, and he predicted results would be available by the end of the year.
After that, he said Pfizer would have to go through the same Emergency Use Authorization process that was followed for the vaccine, and the FDA would weigh in on effectiveness and use.