Pfizer’s CEO described it as a “game-changer.”
This week, the CEO of Pfizer told CNBC that an antiviral treatment for COVID-19 could be available to the public by the end of 2021. It will be in the form of a pill taken orally at home, and the pill is expected to be effective against variants of the virus.
The news about Pfizer’s antiviral pill was also reported on April 26 in the UK newspaper Telegraph. According to the outlet, Pfizer is currently conducting trials in the US and Belgium, with adult volunteers taking pills designed to provide a “cure” for COVID-19. When asked about this on CNBC’s Squawk Box, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said “it is accurate” to say the company is “working on” such therapies.
In fact, the company is testing two antivirals, one that is injected intravenously and another that is taken orally, Bourla said. He explained that Pfizer is focusing on the oral option because it “provides several advantages,” principally that there’s no requirement to go to the hospital, and a health care provider doesn’t have to be present to administer the treatment. He described the oral antiviral pill as a “game changer.” The “end of the year” is a reasonable time frame for availability to the public, Bourla said, but it depends on the success of clinical trials and approval by the Food and Drug Administration. More news of the drug should be available over the summer, he added.
Though Bourla’s comments on the new treatment have made headlines this week, Pfizer actually announced the beginning of Phase 1 clinical trials of the drug, known as PF-07321332, in late March. It’s designed to work by stopping the SARS-CoV-2 virus from replicating in the cell, thanks to the presence of protease inhibitors, which bind to viral enzymes. Protease inhibitors are used to treat other viral pathogens, like hepatitis C and HIV.
“Tackling the Covid-19 pandemic requires both prevention via vaccine and targeted treatment for those who contract the virus,” said Mikael Dolsten, Pfizer’s chief scientific officer, in a press release. “Given the way that SARS-CoV-2 is mutating and the continued global impact of COVID-19, it appears likely that it will be critical to have access to therapeutic options both now and beyond the pandemic.”
To date, more than 235 million COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in the US, with more than 98 million Americans fully vaccinated (either by Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine or the two-dose series from Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna). But experts believe that containing the pandemic requires more than vaccination, as Dolstein stated, and scientists continue to work on drugs to treat the illness when it is first detected.
One therapeutic for COVID-19 has already been approved. In October 2020, the FDA approved remdesivir (brand name Veklury) for adults and children 12 years and older who already have COVID-19, making it the first drug given the OK by the agency to treat the virus. But remdesivir is designed for people who are in the hospital with severe COVID-19, not to be taken at home in the early stages of the illness. If approved by the FDA, the new oral pill will be the first of its kind to treat COVID-19.
In the CNBC interview, Bourla also spoke of the people who are concerned about the long-term safety of the COVID-19 vaccine, and therefore hesitant to get their shots. “You should never try to ridicule [these people] or to challenge their judgment because of their decision,” Bourla said. “They are whole good, decent people and either they have a real fear, or they have been misinformed.”
He continued, “I found that what really resonates with those people, it is when you explain to them that, okay, you may have your doubts, but your decision is not going to influence only your health, your decision to get vaccinated is going to influence the health of others and likely the health of the people that you like and you love the most because they’re the people that you interact with.”