Over the course of this pandemic, significant progress has been made in treating COVID-19 and helping to save lives. That progress includes the development of life-preserving monoclonal antibody infusions and repurposing existing drugs, to which NIH’s Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) public-private partnership has made a major contribution.
But for many months we’ve had hopes that a safe and effective oral medicine could be developed that would reduce the risk of severe illness for individuals just diagnosed with COVID-19. The first indication that those hopes might be realized came from the announcement just a month ago of a 50 percent reduction in hospitalizations from the Merck and Ridgeback drug molnupiravir (originally developed with an NIH grant to Emory University, Atlanta). Now comes word of a second drug with potentially even higher efficacy: an antiviral pill from Pfizer Inc. that targets a different step in the life cycle of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
The most recent exciting news started to roll out earlier this month when a Pfizer research team published in the journal Science some promising initial data involving the antiviral pill and its active compound . Then came even bigger news a few days later when Pfizer announced interim results from a large phase 2/3 clinical trial. It found that, when taken within three days of developing symptoms of COVID-19, the pill reduced by 89 percent the risk of hospitalization or death in adults at high risk of progressing to severe illness .
At the recommendation of the clinical trial’s independent data monitoring committee and in consultation with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Pfizer has now halted the study based on the strength of the interim findings. Pfizer plans to submit the data to the FDA for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) very soon.
Pfizer’s antiviral pill is a protease inhibitor, originally called PF-07321332, or just 332 for short. A protease is an enzyme that cleaves a protein at a specific series of amino acids. The SARS-CoV-2 virus encodes its own protease to help process a large virally-encoded polyprotein into smaller segments that it needs for its life cycle; a protease inhibitor drug can stop that from happening. If the term protease inhibitor rings a bell, that’s because drugs that work in this way already are in use to treat other viruses, including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and hepatitis C virus.
In the case of 332, it targets a protease called Mpro, also called the 3CL protease, coded for by SARS-CoV-2. The virus uses this enzyme to snip some longer viral proteins into shorter segments for use in replication. With Mpro out of action, the coronavirus can’t make more of itself to infect other cells.
What’s nice about this therapeutic approach is that mutations to SARS-CoV-2’s surface structures, such as the spike protein, should not affect a protease inhibitor’s effectiveness. The drug targets a highly conserved, but essential, viral enzyme. In fact, Pfizer originally synthesized and pre-clinically evaluated protease inhibitors years ago as a potential treatment for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which is caused by a coronavirus closely related to SARS-CoV-2. This drug might even have efficacy against other coronaviruses that cause the common cold.
In the study published earlier this month in Science , the Pfizer team led by Dafydd Owen, Pfizer Worldwide Research, Cambridge, MA, reported that the latest version of their Mpro inhibitor showed potent antiviral activity in laboratory tests against not just SARS-CoV-2, but all of the coronaviruses they tested that are known to infect people. Further study in human cells and mouse models of SARS-CoV-2 infection suggested that the treatment might work to limit infection and reduce damage to lung tissue.
In the paper in Science, Owen and colleagues also reported the results of a phase 1 clinical trial with six healthy people. They found that their protease inhibitor, when taken orally, was safe and could reach concentrations in the bloodstream that should be sufficient to help combat the virus.
But would it work to treat COVID-19 in an infected person? So far, the preliminary results from the larger clinical trial of the drug candidate, now known as PAXLOVID, certainly look encouraging. PAXLOVID is a formulation that combines the new protease inhibitor with a low dose of an existing drug called ritonavir, which slows the metabolism of some protease inhibitors and thereby keeps them active in the body for longer periods of time.
The phase 2/3 clinical trial included about 1,200 adults from the United States and around the world who had enrolled in the clinical trial. To be eligible, study participants had to have a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19 within a five-day period along with mild-to-moderate symptoms of illness. They also required at least one characteristic or condition associated with an increased risk for developing severe illness from COVID-19. Each individual in the study was randomly selected to receive either the experimental antiviral or a placebo every 12 hours for five days.
In people treated within three days of developing COVID-19 symptoms, the Pfizer announcement reports that 0.8 percent (3 of 389) of those who received PAXLOVID were hospitalized within 28 days compared to 7 percent (27 of 385) of those who got the placebo. Similarly encouraging results were observed in those who got the treatment within five days of developing symptoms. One percent (6 of 607) on the antiviral were hospitalized versus 6.7 percent (41 of 612) in the placebo group. Overall, there were no deaths among people taking PAXLOVID; 10 people in the placebo group (1.6 percent) subsequently died.
If all goes well with the FDA review, the hope is that PAXLOVID could be prescribed as an at-home treatment to prevent severe illness, hospitalization, and deaths. Pfizer also has launched two additional trials of the same drug candidate: one in people with COVID-19 who are at standard risk for developing severe illness and another evaluating its ability to prevent infection in adults exposed to the coronavirus by a household member.
Meanwhile, Britain recently approved the other recently developed antiviral molnupiravir, which slows viral replication in a different way by blocking its ability to copy its RNA genome accurately. The FDA will meet on November 30 to discuss Merck and Ridgeback’s request for an EUA for molnupiravir to treat mild-to-moderate COVID-19 in infected adults at high risk for severe illness . With Thanksgiving and the winter holidays fast approaching, these two promising antiviral drugs are certainly more reasons to be grateful this year.
 An oral SARS-CoV-2 M(pro) inhibitor clinical candidate for the treatment of COVID-19.
Owen DR, Allerton CMN, Anderson AS, Wei L, Yang Q, Zhu Y, et al. Science. 2021 Nov 2: eabl4784.
 FDA to hold advisory committee meeting to Discuss Merck and Ridgeback’s EUA Application for COVID-19 oral treatment. Food and Drug Administration. October 14, 2021.
COVID-19 Research (NIH)