An early antiviral drug may help block COVID-19 transmission

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In a new study, researchers found that some antivirals can not only help sick people get better but can also prevent hundreds of thousands of virus cases if people get them in the early stages of infection.

The research was conducted by a team at UT Austin and elsewhere.

The study focused on influenza but also has implications for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

By modeling the impact of a pair of leading flu drugs, the team found significant differences in effects between oseltamivir, an older antiviral treatment for flu that patients know by the name Tamiflu, and a newer one, baloxavir, sold under the brand name Xofluza.

The researchers found that the newer treatment—by effectively and rapidly stopping virus replication—dramatically reduced the length of time that an infected person is contagious and, therefore, better limited the spread of flu.

The team says treating even 10% of infected patients with baloxavir shortly after the onset of their symptoms can indirectly prevent millions of infections and save thousands of lives during a typical influenza season.

The researchers concluded that having a similarly effective antiviral treatment for the coronavirus would help to prevent thousands of infections and deaths.

Creating such an antiviral would take time and new strategies in public health planning, but the benefits for patients, communities, and health care settings could be profound.

The team says if a drug quashes viral load within a day and thus radically shortens the contagious period, then researchers could isolate COVID-19 cases pharmaceutically rather than physically and disrupt chains of transmission.

To date, most COVID-19 drug research efforts have prioritized existing antivirals that can be deployed quickly to treat the most seriously ill patients coping with life-threatening symptoms.

The scientists acknowledge it would represent a shift to develop a new antiviral for the coronavirus, to be used early in infection with the aim of curtailing viral replication, just as baloxavir does for flu.

The lead author of the study is Robert Krug, a professor emeritus of molecular biosciences.

The study is published in Nature Communications.

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