The United States will spend more than $3 billion to speed development of antiviral pills to treat the coronavirus and other dangerous viruses that could turn into pandemics.
The funding will invest in "accelerating things that are already in progress" for the disease that causes COVID-19 and also work to develop treatments for other viruses, said Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauci announced the investment Thursday at a White House briefing.
"There are few treatments that exist for many of the viruses that have pandemic potential," he said, including Ebola, dengue, West Nile and Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, adding that "vaccines clearly remain the centerpiece of our arsenal".
The funding will be used to produce a pill that can be taken early in a COVID-19 infection to prevent hospitalization and death from the disease. Such a pill is in development, and the money will speed up clinical trials. If all goes well, some of the pills now being developed might become available by the end of this year.
"Having additional FDA-authorized antiviral medicines available within a year would be a major breakthrough in ongoing efforts to combat COVID-19 and protect the public," the US Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement.
Fauci said the funding also would be used to develop new therapies for other viruses.
Several companies, including Pfizer, Roche and AstraZeneca, are testing antivirals in pill form.
So far, the US has approved one antiviral drug, remdesivir, against COVID-19 and allowed emergency use of three antibody combinations that help the immune system fight the virus.
Originally investigated as a potential cure for the Ebola virus, the drug seems to help patients avoid hospitalization or shorten the course of COVID-19 when given intravenously.
Scientists tested existing antiviral drugs on COVID-19 patients early on without the trials showing any beneficial effect, although researchers believe they might have been more effective in the early days of infection, The New York Times reported.
A number of other viruses, including influenza, HIV and hepatitis C, can be treated with a simple pill. Health experts, including Fauci, have been calling for simpler pill-based drugs for COVID-19 that patients could take themselves.
The biggest need is for a convenient pill that can help keep patients with early symptoms of COVID-19 from developing severe disease and needing hospitalization, according to The Associated Press.
Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration's program for accelerating COVID-19 research, invested more than $19 billion into rapidly developing multiple vaccines. But less than half of the money went toward developing new treatments.
That shortfall has become increasingly concerning as the vaccination campaign slows down, and experts emphasize the need to manage the disease in millions of Americans who may never get inoculated, AP reported.
Meanwhile, the rates of COVID-19 vaccinations are continuing to slow across the US, according to the data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"We're headed into a summer of joy, celebration and increasing freedom from the virus. However, for all the progress we're making as a country, too many communities remain at risk because of low vaccination levels," Jeff Zients, White House coronavirus response coordinator, said at a briefing Thursday.
"The low vaccination rates in some communities is an even bigger concern now that we face the threat of a new, more dangerous variant, specifically, the Delta variant," he noted.
The variant, which was first identified in India, has now spread to more than 80 countries, including the US.