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Pills to Treat COVID-19 Not a Substitute for Vaccines, Experts Say

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Pills to Treat COVID-19 Not a Substitute for Vaccines, Experts Say

Newer oral drug treatments for COVID-19 — which are not yet approved in the United States — appear to be highly effective but are not a substitute for vaccines, according to medical experts who spoke to Reuters as part of an article on the new drugs.

With news stories touting the potential benefits of the new drug treatments, people with diabetes may wonder if it is still important to get a COVID-19 vaccine, or a recommended booster shot if they’ve already been vaccinated. Right now, with rates of COVID-19 rising in many areas of the country and no approval yet of the new drugs by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there is no question that vaccines are a critical step to protect yourself, your family, and your community against the virus that has caused devastation among people with diabetes over the past year and a half. It’s also worth noting that one widely used current treatment for COVID-19, monoclonal antibodies, is in short supply, must be administered intravenously (by IV), and costs $2,100 per dose, although this cost falls to U.S. taxpayers rather than to individual patients.

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Limits to use of COVID-19 pills

While the newly developed antiviral drugs may drastically reduce the risk for hospitalization and death from COVID-19 — Pfizer announced that its drug was found to reduce the risk for severe disease by 89% in a clinical trial — health experts emphasized that there are limits to how the new drugs can be used effectively. While vaccines have been shown to prevent many people from developing COVID-19 in the first place, and to reduce the severity of the infection in people who do develop it, the new treatments must be given during a specific window of time in order to have their intended effect. That’s because they work by preventing replication of the virus in the body, which occurs rapidly in the early stages of COVID-19.

When people develop COVID-19, the experts noted, the virus replicates quickly even before many of the most noticeable symptoms of the infection develop. Symptoms that lead people to seek treatment and potentially hospitalization — such as shortness of breath — tend to occur during the second phase of infection, after the virus has replicated in large numbers. In this second phase, the immune system responds to widespread infection in the body, and this immune response can actually cause widespread damage in the body as cells, tissues, and organs infected by the virus are targeted. At this point, taking an antiviral drug would do little to tamp down on the damage caused by the infection.

To make matters more confusing, there is no set window of time for the first and second stages (rapid viral replication, then the immune response) of COVID-19 — the duration of each phase varies widely from person to person. And many people feel quite well during the first phase of COVID-19, as the virus spreads throughout their body — which means they may not recognize that they are ill and seek out treatment at a time when the new drugs would be most effective. During this phase, their blood oxygen level may be dropping, but they may not develop shortness of breath or any other telltale signs of this dangerous effect.

The bottom line, experts say, is that vaccination will remain a cornerstone of the fight against COVID-19, even after the arrival of new treatments that may lifesaving when given early in the course of the infection.

Want to learn more about coronavirus and diabetes? Read our latest COVID-19 updates.

Quinn Phillips

Quinn Phillips

Quinn Phillips on social media

A freelance health writer and editor based in Wisconsin, Phillips has a degree from Harvard University. He is a former Editorial Assistant for Diabetes Self-Management and has years of experience covering diabetes and related health conditions. Phillips writes on a variety of topics, but is especially interested in the intersection of health and public policy.

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