Researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the US have received a five-year, $3.5m grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) unit National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) for developing a Covid-19 oral antiviral drug. 

The antiviral will be a low-dose drug which can be taken in the at-home setting. 

The latest research is part of the consortium of a new antiviral drug development centre named Center for Antiviral Medicines and Pandemic Preparedness (CAMPP), to be led by Scripps Research. 

CAMPP will be one of nine NIAID-sponsored Antiviral Drug Discovery (AViDD) Centers for Pathogens of Pandemic Concern.

The team’s work will be based on the prior research of Structural Bioinformatics Constellation Endowed chair Dr Montelione. 

In the initial stage, Dr Montelione and his team discovered that a crucial hepatitis C virus protein had similarities with the coronavirus CLpro protease structure, using bioinformatics. 

They analysed whether various Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved drugs acting on the hepatitis C protease could attach and hinder SARS-CoV-2 proteases.

Seven of the ten hepatitis C therapies analysed showed to suppress the SARS-CoV-2 virus. 

Furthermore, three of them were found to target the main protease, CLpro, and the PLpro protease.

They then found that these therapies when merged with remdesivir, a polymerase inhibitor, boosted its antiviral activity by up to tenfold. 

Those drugs that hinder only CLpro did not enhance the effects of remdesivir.

The most promising antiviral therapy candidates to emerge out of the AViDD centres will be analysed in late-stage preclinical research. 

Dr Montelione said: “Our role in the project is to develop novel inhibitors of the two key proteases of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, called CLpro and PLpro, which are essential to the virus lifecycle.”

“By hitting both CLpro and PLpro simultaneously, there is less likelihood of antiviral resistance.”

The Rensselaer team will partner with researchers from the Scripps Research Institute, Mount Sinai School of Medicine and the University of Bologna, Italy for this research.

Meanwhile, the NIH also granted a $2.7m award to researchers at Michigan State University to develop artificial intelligence algorithms that could predict crucial features with the evolution of viruses.