Research into potential antiviral treatments for Covid-19 cannot be rushed, a leading scientist has said.
Last month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the launch of a new taskforce to “supercharge” the search for antiviral medications for the novel disease, setting a goal of having two new drugs available for use later this year.
Dr Ruth McKernan, chairwoman at BioIndustry Association, which helps promote the bioscience sector within the UK economy, said that while an oral antiviral medication would be the quickest to make, ultimately, an inhaled drug may be a safer option for coronavirus patients.
She told journalists at a media briefing on Friday: “If you have an inhaled drug, where you get greater exposure in the lung, (which is) very important the Covid-19, and minimal exposure in other parts of the body, you have the potential to make a safer drug, but it is probably quicker to make an oral drug.”
Dr McKernan, who has worked for in the pharmaceutical industry for 27 years and was head of biology at Pfizer specialising in antivirals, added: “Preclinical safety studies (on antivirals) cannot be rushed, they cannot be sped up.
“In doing the safety studies… it is really relevant how long you are going to give the drug for.
“If you are going to give somebody a drug for five days, (or) two weeks, the hurdles for safety are lower than if you are going to give somebody a drug for two years.
“So if we are to make a drug that is useful, and available by the end of the year, I believe it is going to have to be an oral drug they use for a short period of time only, because the practicalities of making a drug, using a more complex administration process or required for a longer period of use, will require much higher hurdles to be jumped.”
Antiviral drugs are a type of medication used specifically for treating viral infections.
They act by killing or preventing the growth of viruses.
It is hoped that antivirals will benefit those who cannot take a Covid-19 vaccine or for whom jabs may not be effective or may not be an option, such as people with a weakened immune system.
Dr McKernan said that, ultimately, administering an antiviral drug intravenously, or in an inhaled way, “would be a very good way to go” as it minimises exposure to other parts of the body.
She said: “What we want to understand is how much drug you need to stop the virus from replicating and reduce the amount of virus in the blood, in other parts of the body as well, and what other safety concerns there might be.”
At present, there are more than 200 potential antiviral drugs being tested around the world.
The UK is also running several clinical trials to test existing medicines such as favipiravir – drug that has been licensed in Japan since 2014 to treat influenza, and niclosamide, a drug used to treat tapeworm infections to see if they work against Covid-19.
On Thursday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed Eddie Gray, who has previously worked for drugs giant GSK, will chair the Government’s Covid-19 Antivirals Taskforce.
Mr Gray told journalists at the briefing: “I do think the antiviral programme and the story around antivirals is an important one and has a real contribution to make to the overall response to Covid, and I am looking forward to moving that programme forward.”