With coronavirus vaccines being administered worldwide, scientists are preparing a new weapon against the disease that has claimed more than 4-5m lives: an effective antiviral medication to treat the worst symptoms.

While vaccines aim to prevent infection, a pill that sped up recovery times and could be taken at home would be a significant development, providing treatment for people who are infected and potentially reducing the burden on hospitals.

With autumn under way in the northern hemisphere and fears of rising cases in colder months, pharmaceutical companies are locked in a race to achieve a breakthrough.

But there are questions over how much of a difference antiviral treatments can make, and how quickly, to patients with Covid-19, a potentially fatal disease with symptoms including a continuous cough, breathlessness and a high temperature.

How do antiviral drugs work?

The current generation of Covid-19 vaccines focuses on generating antibodies to neutralise the spike protein that the virus uses to enter human cells. With antiviral treatments, scientists must identify how to stop the virus from replicating.

One of the challenges faced by researchers is that antiviral drugs must be able to keep up with the evolving virus. cannot evade antiviral drugs in the way that it can vaccines

“They’re not vulnerable to a lot of variant changes that you might see with the spike protein,” said Nicholas Kartsonis, senior vice-president of clinical research in infectious diseases at US pharmaceutical company Merck. It means that the virus

“These sort of antivirals are really targeting the replication process of the virus itself,” he added.

Who is working on them? Merck’s tablet, called molnupiravir, would be taken within five days of Covid-