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Spring 2022
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Living with COVID: Antiviral Drugs Make Treating COVID More Convenient

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Drug cocktails that lessen viral symptoms are the next step in research for effective COVID treatments.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a prime, real-time example of public health practice in action. Gillings faculty and students continue to play central roles in informing ongoing response efforts; in working on vaccines and treatments to prevent serious infections and stave off future pandemics; and in talking about lessons learned from SARS-CoV-2, whether that’s how to talk about personal health decisions or how to better protect vulnerable communities.

Thanks to his prior decades of coronavirus research, the lab of Ralph Baric, PhD, William R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor of epidemiology, has been one of the most industrious and important sites of scientific inquiry during the COVID-19 pandemic. Making key discoveries that have fueled the development and distribution of vaccines and treatments, researchers in the Baric Lab have been at the forefront of the COVID-19 response.

Molnupiravir, a twice-daily pill that stops the virus from multiplying, is one of two authorized drugs available that provides COVID-19 patients with the option to treat the virus at home instead of getting an infusion in the hospital. Tim Sheahan, PhD, led the breakthrough experiments in the Baric Lab that first showed molnupiravir’s effectiveness against coronaviruses in 2020.

“Before the pandemic, we were working on a few antiviral drugs as potential therapies for different types of coronaviruses that were genetically unrelated,” Sheahan says, “and when we found out there was a new virus in China that was a coronavirus, we added SARS-CoV-2 to our paper.” 

"Translating research into practice is usually not very common for people like me. ...With the pandemic, almost everything we do is research intended to improve human health or translate into some kind of therapy, vaccine or antibody."

— Tim Sheahan, PhD, assistant professor

That paper led to a phase 2 clinical trial at UNC. Because Sheahan and his colleagues had done the preclinical work on molnupiravir, they were able to do the virology for UNC’s clinical trial to see whether the drug would work in humans. It did: The trial, and subsequent phase 2 and 3 trials at UNC and elsewhere, found that molnupiravir more rapidly reduced infectious virus in the airway, hospitalizations and deaths significantly in people who had been recently infected with SARS-CoV-2.

“Doing the preclinical research on drugs that ultimately get used in people is gratifying,” says Sheahan, who usually works with cell cultures and small animals instead of human subjects, “but participating in a clinical trial and showing that a treatment is working was a pleasant surprise.” 

Sheahan, who originally planned to study water resources and water biology, declared microbiology as his second major after taking a course in it at the University of New Hampshire. After graduating, he worked in a gene therapy lab in Boston that was trying to use viruses to cure genetic disease — finding “a microscopic world where there’s a lot going on that you can’t see” — sparking an interest in virology and a move to Chapel Hill, where he began studying under Baric in 2003. 

Continuing his work in antiviral drug development, Sheahan is now focused on oral therapies that have less chance of adverse interactions with other medicines, as well as cocktail-based approaches that would attack the virus in multiple places, reducing its ability to form a drug resistance.

“Translating research into practice is usually not very common for people like me — I’m a virologist who works in a lab, and normally we’re working on answering basic science questions,” Sheahan says. “With the pandemic, almost everything we do is research intended to improve human health or translate into some kind of therapy, vaccine or antibody.”