University of Alberta researchers have discovered the mechanism of action of an antiviral pill which has been submitted to Health Canada for review as a potential COVID-19 therapeutic.
Calvin Gordon is a PhD student in the department of medical microbiology and immunology in Matthias Gotte’s lab. He discovered that molnupiravir, a drug developed by pharmaceutical company Merck, works by causing errors in the DNA of the virus when the virus is making copies of itself. Eventually, these errors accumulate and become fatal to the virus.
According to Merck, this pill has been shown to decrease the risk of hospitalization or death by half compared to a placebo.
The drug’s pill format makes it easier to administer to patients, as well as easier to distribute it globally. According to the researchers, another major advantage of this drug is that a small concentration of it is very effective.
Gotte mentioned some data indicating that if you expose cells that are grown in the lab for “longer periods of time” with “high concentrations of the drug” the cells might end up making errors. Though this likely doesn’t reflect the conditions that cells would be in inside the human body, this is one of the factors Health Canada is reviewing.
“It is up to… Health Canada to look into all the safety data,” Gotte said.
Gordon’s research has also found that monupiravir is most efficient when administered before exposure to COVID-19; there are ongoing studies looking into its potential as a preventative measure. However, Gotte stressed the importance of COVID-19 vaccinations.
“A vaccine is by far the most important tool we have in the fight against COVID-19,” Gotte said, “[Pills] are clearly the second choice.”
Looking to the future, the lab will continue to work on examining the efficiency of molnupiravir and remdesivir — another antiviral drug being used against COVID-19 — against other viruses.
“We essentially want to create a toolbox of sorts, where if there’s an outbreak of another virus, then we have some antivirals that we can go to right away for treatment,” Gordon said.