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From the onset of the pandemic, scientists got to work. Some developed a vaccine to prevent illness, others began fashioning a drug formulation to halt the disease once it took hold.

Pfizer is the manufacturer of Wednesday’s FDA approved Paxlovid, but great minds working out of Argonne National Laboratory’s Advanced Photon Source in DuPage County accelerated the process.

Lisa Keefe, Phd is the executive director.

“We look at the structure at the atomic level of a target and work with them to design potential drugs that would bind tightly to that target and have an impact on treating the disease,” she said.

The equipment they use is massive, an ultra-bright  X-ray larger than Wrigley Field that allows them to zoom in on the tiniest detail.

“We look at potential targets like a lock, and potential drugs like the keys to see which of the best matches,” Keefe said. “And the way that we do that is we use the advanced photon source. It’s like a very large microscope.”

And this is where the data was analyzed. 

“This involves many, many experiments, many tweaking of potential drug until one is found to be suitable,” she said. “Not only in how well it treats a disease but also in toxicity.”

Their input, combined with study at Pfizer resulted in Paxlovid, a combination of two anti-viral medications aimed at the virus that causes Covid, SARS-CoV-2. Unlike the vaccine which targets the spike protein, this goes for a protease.

“The protease is internal to the virus and it’s involved in the virus replicating,” Keefe said. “So if you can target that and inhibit, then the virus can no longer replicate.”

One pill can be taken at home at the onset of symptoms before someone gets  sick enough to go to the hospital. 

A prescription is required and there are some limitations on who can take Paxlovid. High risk people with a positive Covid test, ages 12 and older who are at least 88 pounds. 

And after lengthy lab studies, clinical trials show it works.

“When the results of these experiments produce a drug that is very effective, we are all incredibly elated about that,” Keefe said.

The key to success is speed, take the drug early. Pfizer’s tests show Paxlovid cut the risk of hospitalization and death by 89% if given within a few days of the onset of symptoms.