Now that more than one-third of the American public has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, it’s a good time to appreciate the effort that has led to this point. The unprecedented speed at which multiple vaccines have been devised and produced has made a critical difference in one of the biggest health crises in modern history. 

Vaccines continue to be the most effective way to prevent COVID-19, but companies ranging from pharmaceutical giants to nimble startups have also been working on a class of drugs called COVID-19 antivirals. These treatments are starting to get much more attention, to the point where it’s fun to dream of a pill you could take as symptoms develop.

But while COVID-19 antivirals may grow beyond the one (remdesivir) currently approved for use in the U.S. and become a bigger tool to help fight the virus, they’re unlikely to ever surpass the importance and utility of vaccines. So what exactly does an antiviral do and who is it most likely to help?

What is an antiviral, and how does it work?

Despite what the term suggests, an antiviral doesn’t magically protect you from being infected by a virus. Instead, it shuts down some of a virus’s favorite tricks – namely, either imprinting its DNA on a cell, or using the cell’s inner workings to replicate itself. Without going too far into an explanation of the science involved (though here is a good one if you’d like a deeper dive), this means antivirals are given to people who either are confirmed to have a viral disease or have been exposed to it, in order to stop them from becoming even sicker.

The most commonly discussed example is Tamiflu, which is approved to prescribe to patients who are “in early treatment for flu.” Obviously, this could be done for people suspected or confirmed of having COVID-19, but these treatments don’t yet exist in the current pandemic beyond remdesiver which has only proven effective in hospitalized individuals. 

The limitations of COVID-19 antivirals

As an example, one big reason that remdesivir hasn’t been more widely prescribed is that it needs to be given as an IV infusion. This has restricted its use to hospitals and healthcare facilities.

Could this eventually change? Perhaps. The worldwide effort to develop new therapies has led to some potential breakthroughs in the delivery mechanisms for COVID-19 antivirals, including an oral solution devised by a team of Australian researchers, and even a possible inhaled treatment. But even if antivirals become easier to take, the fact remains that their use case is likely going to be reactive instead of preventative.

Getting vaccinated remains the best advice for safeguarding yourself against COVID-19

Though they don’t work exactly the same way, the best antivirals you could ever have are the antibodies created by your own body – which come from getting vaccinated. The lessons learned from research into COVID-19 antivirals may well prove helpful in preparing for future pandemics, but there’s no need to wait for them when getting one or two shots right now is even more practical. If you still haven’t been vaccinated, here’s how to get your shot(s).  

It’s also crucial to keep up to date on all the latest information on vaccines and treatments, something we help all our members do at Forward. Check out Forward’s COVID-19 resources to ensure you make the best possible decisions about COVID – and your overall health – today.

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