Coronavirus drugs face long trials, challenges before they hit market


Pfizer's COVID-19 antiviral pills are manufactured inside a laboratory in Freiburg, Germany. The pharmaceutical giant asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in November for emergency use authorization for its Paxlovid pill, which studies have shown to cut hospitalization or death among newly infected high-risk patients.

In March 2020, Dr. Joseph Vinetz left the contemplative world of his Yale University infectious-disease laboratory and plunged into the COVID ward at Yale New Haven Hospital, joining an army of health care workers who struggled to treat the deadly viral disease.

There were no drugs against COVID-19, and no way to predict which infected patients would develop pneumonia or fall into an inflammatory tailspin leading to severe illness or death. In desperation, Vinetz and countless other doctor-scientists trawled the literature for existing medicines that might help.

“We were in the hospital. We had nothing,” Vinetz said. “I was one of tens of thousands of doctors around the world who said, ‘We gotta figure out what to do.’”

On April 16, 2020, Vinetz saw an article in the journal Cell about a drug called camostat, licensed in Japan in 1985 to treat inflammation of the pancreas. Research during the first SARS epidemic, in 2004, had shown the drug had a plausible biochemical mechanism for slowing coronavirus infections, so Vinetz and his colleagues quickly organized a small clinical trial on outpatients with mild to moderate symptoms.

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