Antiviral drugs are a class of medication used for treating viral infections. Most antivirals target specific viruses, while a broad-spectrum antiviral is effective against a wide range of viruses. Unlike most antibiotics, antiviral drugs do not destroy their target pathogen; instead they inhibit its development.
Antiviral drugs are one class of antimicrobials, a larger group which also includes antibiotic (also termed antibacterial), antifungal and antiparasitic drugs, or antiviral drugs based on monoclonal antibodies. Most antivirals are considered relatively to the host, and therefore can be used to treat infections. They should be distinguished from viricides, which are not medication but deactivate or destroy virus particles, either inside or outside the body. Natural viricides are produced by some plants such as eucalyptus and Australian tea trees.
Most of the antiviral drugs now available are designed to help deal with HIV, herpes viruses, SARS-CoV-2, the hepatitis B and C viruses, and influenza A and B viruses. Researchers are working to extend the range of antivirals to other families of pathogens.
Designing safe and effective antiviral drugs is difficult because viruses use the host's cells to replicate. This makes it difficult to find targets for the drug that would interfere with the virus without also harming the host organism's cells. Moreover, the major difficulty in developing vaccines and anti-viral drugs is due to viral variation.
The emergence of antivirals is the product of a greatly expanded knowledge of the genetic and molecular function of organisms, allowing biomedical researchers to understand the structure and function of viruses, major advances in the techniques for finding new drugs, and the pressure placed on the medical profession to deal with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the cause of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
The first experimental antivirals were developed in the 1960s, mostly to deal with herpes viruses, and were found using traditional trial-and-error drug discovery methods. Researchers grew cultures of cells and infected them with the target virus. They then introduced into the cultures chemicals which they thought might inhibit viral activity and observed whether the level of virus in the cultures rose or fell. Chemicals that seemed to have an effect were selected for closer study.
This was a very time-consuming, hit-or-miss procedure, and in the absence of a good knowledge of how the target virus worked, it was not efficient in discovering effective antivirals which had few side effects. Only in the 1980s, when the full genetic sequences of viruses began to be unraveled, did researchers begin to learn how viruses worked in detail, and exactly what chemicals were needed to thwart their reproductive cycle.
Main article: Vaccination
While most antivirals treat viral infection, vaccines are a preemptive first line of defense against pathogens. Vaccination involves the introduction (i.e. via injection) of a small amount of typically inactivated or attenuated antigenic material to stimulate an individual's immune system. The immune system responds by developing white blood cells to specifically combat the introduced pathogen, resulting in adaptive immunity. Vaccination in a population results in herd immunity and greatly improved population health, with significant reductions in viral infection and disease.
Main article: Vaccination policy § United States
Vaccination policy in the United States consists of public and private vaccination requirements. For instance, public schools require students to receive vaccinations (termed "vaccination schedule") for viruses and bacteria such as diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus (DTaP), measles, mumps, rubella (MMR), varicella (chickenpox), hepatitis B, rotavirus, polio, and more. Private institutions might require annual influenza vaccination. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that routine immunization of newborns prevents about 42,000 deaths and 20 million cases of disease each year, saving about $13.6 billion.
Main article: Vaccination schedule § United States
Despite their successes, in the United States there exists plenty of stigma surrounding vaccines that cause people to be incompletely vaccinated. These "gaps" in vaccination result in unnecessary infection, death, and costs. There are two major reasons for incomplete vaccination:
Although the American Academy of Pediatrics endorses universal immunization, they note that physicians should respect parents' refusal to vaccinate their children after sufficient advising and provided the child does not face a significant risk of infection. Parents can also cite religious reasons to avoid public school vaccination mandates, but this reduces herd immunity and increases risk of viral infection.
Vaccines boosts the body's immune system to better attack viruses in the "complete particle" stage, outside of the organism's cells. They traditionally consist of an attenuated (a live weakened) or inactivated (killed) version of the virus. These vaccines can, in very rare cases, harm the host by inadvertently infecting the host with a full-blown viral occupancy. Recently "subunit" vaccines have been devised that consist strictly of protein targets from the pathogen. They stimulate the immune system without doing serious harm to the host. In either case, when the real pathogen attacks the subject, the immune system responds to it quickly and blocks it.
Vaccines are very effective on stable viruses but are of limited use in treating a patient who has already been infected. They are also difficult to successfully deploy against rapidly mutating viruses, such as influenza (the vaccine for which is updated every year) and HIV. Antiviral drugs are particularly useful in these cases.
Following the HPTN 052 study and PARTNER study, there is significant evidence to demonstrate that antiretroviral drugs inhibit transmission when the HIV virus in the person living with HIV has been undetectable for 6 months or longer.
Guidelines regarding viral diagnoses and treatments change frequently and limit quality care. Even when physicians diagnose older patients with influenza, use of antiviral treatment can be low. Provider knowledge of antiviral therapies can improve patient care, especially in geriatric medicine. Furthermore, in local health departments (LHDs) with access to antivirals, guidelines may be unclear, causing delays in treatment. With time-sensitive therapies, delays could lead to lack of treatment. Overall, national guidelines, regarding infection control and management, standardize care and improve healthcare worker and patient safety. Guidelines, such as those provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during the 2009 flu pandemic caused by the H1N1 virus, recommend, among other things, antiviral treatment regimens, clinical assessment algorithms for coordination of care, and antiviral chemoprophylaxis guidelines for exposed persons. Roles of pharmacists and pharmacies have also expanded to meet the needs of public during public health emergencies.
Main article: Strategic National Stockpile
Public Health Emergency Preparedness initiatives are managed by the CDC via the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response. Funds aim to support communities in preparing for public health emergencies, including pandemic influenza. Also managed by the CDC, the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) consists of bulk quantities of medicines and supplies for use during such emergencies. Antiviral stockpiles prepare for shortages of antiviral medications in cases of public health emergencies. During the H1N1 pandemic in 2009–2010, guidelines for SNS use by local health departments was unclear, revealing gaps in antiviral planning. For example, local health departments that received antivirals from the SNS did not have transparent guidance on the use of the treatments. The gap made it difficult to create plans and policies for their use and future availabilities, causing delays in treatment.