Updated: Apr 29
You may be wondering -- why is there no “pill” to stop the coronavirus?
When we first realized there was a deadly virus threatening the entire world, many Americans assumed that there just had to be a pill for that. Once people heard that the symptoms were things like headache, shortness of breath, exhaustion, or a fever, they figured the next step was easy: Go to their doctor and get a pill.
Except there isn’t any -- and whipping up an instant vaccine hasn’t proven easy either.
The fact is, we’ve been conditioned to think medicine can do anything. In my small hometown in the 1940s and 50s there was one doctor. He did it all --made house calls, gave kids shots, checked the football team for hernias, delivered babies, removed tonsils.
If you had an infection, and Doc gave you a shot in the rear and told you “it will be all right,” you felt it would be. We had confidence in Doc Williams – and for the most part, Americans still have confidence in their doctors and medical systems. We had reason to feel that way. Our life spans had increased from 46.3 years in 1900 to 76.6 years by 2000. Because of medical research, almost no one dies of lockjaw, or infections from wounds like those that killed millions of soldiers in earlier wars. The invention of and wide availability of antibiotics to treat diseases caused by bacteria has probably saved more lives than anything.
At the same time, we discovered vaccines like the ones for polio. “Better living through chemistry,” was an old advertising slogan, but there’s truth in it. But not everyone selling medications is able or honest. It took government intervention to create the confidence we have in our medical systems. Years ago, there were charlatans who sold a diet supplement said to help persons lose weight. It was actually … tapeworm eggs. This caused weight loss, all right, but eventually killed the patient. There were many other quack remedies.
Finally, in 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act. The Act prohibited the interstate transport of food which had been "adulterated," meaning colored to conceal "damage or inferiority," made with additives "injurious to health," or the use of "filthy, decomposed, or putrid" substances. It also applied to the interstate marketing of drugs. This led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration. Today, the FDA can say to any manufacturer of any new pill or drug, “what is it? Prove that it works. Is it safe?”
The FDA is in charge of making sure these things we take as pills, or ‘shots’ to prevent flu, measles, polio, and all sorts of other diseases are safe and work as intended.
Drugs are mostly chemical compounds tested to assess their impact on diseases. The first successful pill made in a lab was salvarsan, an organic derivative containing arsenic; it was used in the early 20th century to treat syphilis.
Sometimes drugs are discovered in strange ways. Mustard gas was a deadly chemical weapon in World War I. But nitrogen mustards were discovered from an accidental explosion of a ship in an Italian harbor in 1943, and they were found to offer relief to leukemia patients.
Today, nitrogen mustards are still used in ‘chemotherapy’ to treat leukemia. Chemotherapy is, in fact, the use of toxic chemicals to treat diseases.
But back to our question: Why is there no pill to treat COVID-19? Why is it taking so long to develop a vaccine to protect us against the virus?
The answer lies in the nature of viruses. Viruses aren’t really alive; they are more like small molecular “time bombs” lying dormant until they can attach themselves to a living organism. In some ways virus infections are more like cancers than bacterial infections. Viruses invade another living thing -- and become part of that living body. You can’t kill the virus without also causing significant harm to the host, much as chemotherapy takes a tremendous toll on cancer victims even if successful.
Today, we don’t have any antiviral medications to treat COVID-19. There is no cure. That’s why not getting infected in the first place is so important. Laboratories all over the world are working on the problem, but no one really knows when or if they will solve it.
We all hope they will. But one final word of caution: We cannot skimp on safety. If we don’t follow the precaution protocols established decades ago, poorly tested pills or vaccines could do a lot more damage than those quack remedies did in the 19 th century.
It’s hard to have patience when a pandemic is raging – but we must.
Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist, McMasters Distinguished Professor emeritus and the founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University.