Though the COVID-19 vaccine is an important tool in stopping the spread of the virus, treatments are still essential to saving lives during the pandemic. National Institutes of Health (NIH)-supported researcher Susan Baker, Ph.D., studies COVID-19 treatments through basic research. The research is part of NIH's Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) program. Dr. Baker spoke about some recent findings and what her hopes are for future treatments of the virus that causes COVID-19 and other viruses.
What is the goal of your current COVID-19 treatment research?
We're trying to identify new ways to stop the virus. We are looking at repurposing existing drugs and also starting from scratch to identify a compound that would eventually be turned into a drug to combat COVID-19. We believe antiviral drugs can be very effective, but it can take a long time to develop them. The upside is if we identify such a drug, it could block many different kinds of coronaviruses, not just the virus that causes COVID-19. A broad-spectrum drug would help both in this pandemic and against future emerging viruses.
Tell us about your recent research in COVID-19 treatments.
My collaborators screened a library of drugs that were approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treating other conditions and identified a compound that can block the replication of SARS-CoV-2 in cells. My group tested this drug and found that it blocks one of the viral proteases (or viral enzymes) that is necessary for replication. If this drug can be evaluated in clinical trials in patients with COVID-19, we will learn if it can be used to treat patients in this current pandemic. While this is exciting, there is still much work to be done to identify effective treatments for COVID-19.
What is your hope for the future of COVID-19 treatment research?
I hope we can discover an effective way to treat people with the virus that causes COVID-19 and reduce the incidence of severe disease. In addition, we may be able to treat people with mild symptoms and limit the spread of the virus. Stopping the spread of the virus is important for keeping people out of the intensive care unit. If someone without symptoms were to test positive, my hope is that we could give them a drug to immediately stop the virus from spreading in that person, or from spreading to others.
Why is it important to continue research on COVID-19 treatments now that vaccines are available?
There are a few reasons. A new variant of the COVID-19 virus could emerge that available vaccines cannot stop. Or another coronavirus could emerge. We want to have drugs available that can target the proteins shared by all coronaviruses. This drug may block newly emerging viruses that could cause a new pandemic. That's why it's important to keep investing in basic research to understand these issues and to develop effective treatments against all coronaviruses.