In the past century, there’s perhaps been the greatest strides in what we consider the modern medical field, from the original discovery of the first antibiotics by Fleming in the early 20th century, to ongoing research in CRISPR and its applications in gene therapy. With all the discoveries and new breakthroughs, the public often finds it hard to keep track of any particularly noteworthy advancements.
A particularly important one that hasn’t found as big of a presence in the public consciousness would be antiviral treatments, because of the ongoing pandemic and the increasing availability of some prescription antivirals (like Tamiflu and Relenza), the topic seems to have garnered some renewed interest, along with floods of subsequent misconceptions and misinformation. Here we’ll discuss the recent history, address and clear up some common misconceptions, and inform you about the possible detriments and benefits of taking these to prevent common viruses like the flu and when they should be used.
A Brief History
Unlike antibiotics, whose field of research and discovery began in the 1920s, early experiments and clinical trials didn’t make headway until the mid to late 1960s, mostly because our early knowledge on how viruses functioned and reproduced to infect a host was laughable compared to our understanding of most bacterial infections set in earlier times. The earliest antivirals to be developed (and where most of its research is still ongoing) were to be used to treat different types of viral STDs. In the 60s, the main concern was the various types of Herpes viruses (HPV).
These first antivirals were made using the standard trial-and error pharmaceutical techniques, treating infected cells containing the target virus with a multitude of concoctions that they thought might inhibit the production of them, until they got the desired effect. This process was incredibly time-consuming and highly ineffective, those chemicals that did have the desired effect on the virus’s reproduction rarely did so without devastating side-effects. It was not until the 1980s, with the first investigations and progress being made into unraveling a virus’s genome, that we were able to learn about their reproductive cycle and how to better inhibit it to treat infection.
That being said though, we have since come a long way, with antivirals turning STDs that just decades ago would be a death sentence, into manageable, albeit chronic, diseases. Most modern antiviral drugs are designed to treat these big sexually transmitted diseases, since they are often the deadliest when left untreated. New antiviral drugs for far more benign ailments like different influenza strains are also now commonly used, although many are not yet over-the-counter and require a prescription, perhaps signaling a new shift in direction in how antivirals will begin to be applied.
With the ongoing pandemic, you often see some more than dubious claims as to what low-caliber or even fake antivirals can do to prevent COVID-19. Firstly (and something to keep in mind during this flu season), as the Centers for Disease Control states, “Influenza (flu) and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses. It’s likely that flu viruses and the virus that causes COVID-19 will both spread this fall and winter. While flu and COVID-19 share many characteristics, one key difference is that there are vaccines to prevent flu.”
So, while you can use common over-the-counter pain reliever and anti-flu-symptom drugs to help alleviate some lesser symptoms of COVID-19, this will not somehow prevent you from contracting the disease. In fact, antivirals are specifically catered to fight against a viral infection when it is already contracted, this makes antiviral drugs distinct from vaccines, which as we all know, help your body build an immunity to a pathogen so you never actually contract it in the first place.
This season’s flu vaccines will also obviously not protect you from COVID-19, since they’re catered to a highly specific strain of flu (strains A and B) which mutate every so often and require constant readjustments. As of December 2019, the only FDA approved antiviral treatment for COVID-19 is Remdesivir, sold under the brand name VEKLURY, if you’d like more information as to how to be prescribed and treated.
Anti-Flu Medications, When to Use?
Most of us have contracted the flu before, and many of us may be unfamiliar with more sophisticated treatments like anti-flu and Relenza, after all, won’t bed rest, fever reducing drugs, and plenty of fluids do the trick? Well, generally, the CDC recommends that those at most risk of developing more serious flu complications like pneumonia and inner ear infections use antivirals, since they are the ones that can have the most potential benefit. Treatments work best within the first 2 days of exhibiting symptoms, potentially reducing the duration of the illness by 2-3 days, but administering treatments even after the first 48 hours still produces positive effects.
Often though, people who otherwise don’t have any secondary conditions or are not at high risk for complications simply don’t need to be prescribed these treatments. You’re still bound to gain more from taking these treatments though, as drugs like Tami-flu can turn more severe cases of flu that might require hospitalization into manageable, stay-at-home endeavors (thus saving much needed hospital bed space for COVID-19 cases).
The field of antiviral therapy is ever expanding, and with the onset of the global pandemic it’s potential benefits and uses have never been clearer. For more serious diseases like the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, antiviral treatments are best used to try and alleviate symptoms, but not as a potential cure. For that, we’d have to look towards the new vaccines currently being developed by Faiser and Biontech, which per the counsel of health experts, may be released to the general public as early as spring 2021. Until then though, as always, stay safe, and get through this last month of 2020 as safe as can be.