July 30, 2021: NCATS Is Preparing for Tomorrow’s Pandemics Today

The highly efficacious vaccines developed to prevent COVID-19 were built on decades of research on mRNA technology. Without that research, it might have taken years, rather than months, to develop and deploy COVID-19 vaccines.

It is becoming clear, however, that although vaccines are necessary, they are not sufficient: We need an array of antiviral therapeutics to treat COVID-19. Discovering and developing new antiviral drugs can be a years-long, failure-prone process. While research into antivirals is ongoing, remdesivir remains the only U.S. Food and Drug Administration–approved antiviral to treat COVID-19, and its effectiveness has a narrow window in the course of the disease.

We need to have more antivirals ready to help treat patients and reduce the risk of serious illness and death, now and for future outbreaks or pandemics. Moving swiftly to stop or slow new outbreaks will require that we have a pool of promising potential treatment options that are far along the drug development process when a viral pandemic starts. This is no time to let up on the gas pedal in the search for new antiviral therapies.

So, how do we get there?

A Collaborative Effort

The Antiviral Program for Pandemics (APP) is a $3 billion new effort to accelerate treatments for COVID-19 and to anticipate the treatment needs of future pandemics. It aims to develop safe, effective oral antivirals for virus families that have the potential to cause pandemics. In addition to the Coronaviridae family of viruses that led to COVID-19, the APP will target several other virus orders/families, including Bunyavirales (Rift Valley fever, Hantavirus, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever), Filoviridae (Ebola, Marburg), Flaviviridae (yellow fever, dengue, Zika), Paramyxoviridae (Hendra, Nipah), Picornaviridae (enterovirus D68) and Togaviridae (chikungunya).

The APP will showcase the power of collaboration and team-based science to drive antiviral drug discovery and development efforts. NCATS is collaborating with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Office of Research Infrastructure Programs (ORIP), Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), academic researchers, and the private sector on a portfolio of antiviral projects along the preclinical development pipeline. This approach recognizes that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and brings together a multidisciplinary team of chemists, biologists and others to achieve the goals of the APP.


Collaboration is at the heart of everything NCATS does, and our role in the APP is no different. As part of the APP, we will partner with extramural scientists and the private sector to advance drug discovery and development programs. To accelerate antiviral development, we will apply our proficiency in drug discovery and development, as well as our expertise in using cutting-edge platforms and artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML). By leveraging our strong expertise in translational science, NCATS will help the APP team overcome the scientific, technical and operational barriers to delivering antiviral drug candidates ready for Phase 2 clinical trials to help prepare for future pandemics.

Modulating novel targets for coronaviruses and other virus families will require new chemical structures to be produced and tested, and for this purpose NCATS will apply state-of-the-art medicinal chemistry technologies. We will rapidly test drug candidates for their activity against specific viral targets, in isolation and in cell culture, and use the data to refine the design of new candidates. NCATS’ automated solution — which combines automated synthetic chemistry, AI/ML and biological testing — will bridge chemical biology, computational chemistry and pharmacology in preclinical drug discovery. We will rigorously assess a new candidate’s potential for activity after oral administration — and for safety. These assessments will include studies and activities that enable investigational new drug applications.

We are still in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, and many people are asking not if there will be another, but when. By working together, we can develop the next generation of antiviral treatments.

If you’re a scientist in the extramural community or private sector looking to advance drug discovery and development programs for oral antiviral candidates, please email us at app@ncats.nih.gov. If you’re interested in joining the NCATS team when job opportunities become available, follow us on LinkedIn or https://ncats.nih.gov/jobs.

Learn more about NCATS’ role in the APP.

Your partner in science and health,

Joni L. Rutter, Ph.D.
Acting Director
National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences