U.S. to Invest More Than $3 Billion in Covid-19 Antiviral Development

WASHINGTON—The Biden administration will invest more than $3 billion on developing and manufacturing antiviral pills to treat coronavirus, the Department of Health and Human Services said Thursday.

“New antivirals that prevent serious Covid-19 illness and death, especially oral drugs that could be taken at home early in the course of disease, would be powerful tools for battling the pandemic and saving lives,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Biden and the nation’s top infectious-disease expert.

The $3.2 billion investment will be allocated from the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package Mr. Biden signed into law in March. In a briefing Thursday, Dr. Fauci said the funding could accelerate clinical trials “already in progress” for some antiviral pills and potentially make some of them available by year’s end. The oral antiviral medicines would be designed to be taken at home and to treat symptoms early in the course of infection.

Dr. Fauci said coronavirus vaccines “remain the centerpiece of our arsenal” in fighting the pandemic, but noted antiviral drugs would serve as an important complement in preventing severe illness and hospitalization.

Researchers are testing antivirals in pill form that could become a kind of Tamiflu for Covid-19.

As more U.S. adults get their Covid-19 vaccines, a variety of side effects are emerging. WSJ’s Daniela Hernandez speaks with an infectious-disease specialist on what is common, what isn’t and when to seek medical attention. Photo: Associated Press

Merck

& Co. and its partner, Ridgeback Biotherapeutics LP, in April said they were testing the oral antiviral drug, known as molnupiravir, in treating patients early in the course of the disease and who are at high risk of Covid-19 complications.

The companies had stopped a separate trial testing the drug in hospitalized patients after it wasn’t found to be helpful. But Merck said if a study proved successful for outpatients, the company could file for an emergency-use authorization in the second half of this year.

Pfizer Chief Executive

Albert Bourla

has also said an oral Covid-19 treatment the company is developing could be available for use by the end of the year. The company began an early-stage trial in March testing the oral Covid-19 drug in people.

The only antiviral authorized by the Food and Drug Administration is remdesivir from

Gilead Sciences Inc.,

and it has been shown to provide only a modest benefit in hospitalized patients, reducing their stays by several days.

The FDA has also cleared three monoclonal-antibody drugs made by

Eli Lilly

& Co. and

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc.

for people with mild to moderate Covid-19. But their use has been limited, in part because they are given by intravenous infusion, which can be laborious for hospitals to administer.

As part of the plan announced Thursday, the National Institutes of Health will “evaluate, prioritize and advance” antiviral candidates to Phase 2 clinical trials, according to an HHS statement.

The funding includes more than $300 million for research and lab support, nearly $1 billion for preclinical and clinical evaluation, and nearly $700 million for development and manufacturing through the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.

Write to Sabrina Siddiqui at [email protected]

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