The last week of April is World Immunization Week — a time to acknowledge the critical action we need to protect people from the worst outcomes of vaccine-preventable diseases. It’s also a great time to celebrate the progress that’s already been made. Under the Biden-Harris Administration, the Department of Energy (DOE) is championing cutting-edge science — including the science required to ensure bacteria and viruses do not control our lives.
When COVID-19 emerged as a crisis, the DOE’s 17 National Laboratories sprang into action. They worked together to target the major components in the fight against the virus: they discovered potential drugs, addressed medical supply shortages, developed COVID-19 testing methods, modeled the disease’s spread and impact, and studied how the virus moved in the environment.
The technology at one of the National Laboratories was also instrumental in the development of a groundbreaking treatment for COVID-19.
In November 2021, Pfizer announced the results of clinical trials of Paxlovid, an oral antiviral treatment against COVID-19. Not only was Paxlovid effective against the worst outcomes of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, but it also reduced the risk of hospitalization in people who were not vaccinated against COVID-10 by 89%. Other clinical trials supported the effectiveness of Paxlovid among people vaccinated against COVID-19, as well.
The next month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization of Paxlovid for the treatment of mild to moderate coronavirus disease for those who are at high risk for progression to severe cases. It was the first oral antiviral to be authorized by the FDA for treatment of COVID-19.
Shining a Light on COVID-19
The development of Paxlovid was made possible, in part, by the U.S. Department of Energy – specifically, the Advanced Photon Source (APS), an Office of Science user facility at DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory.
Finding the treatment of any disease starts with understanding the protein structure of the virus. Scientists prepared protein crystal samples of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and sent them to the National Laboratory. Argonne scientists set them up on equipment at the Advanced Photon Source, where an ultrabright x-ray beam was directed at the protein crystal. This diffracted the light into a detector, which created images of patterns of “spots.”
Using the position and intensity of these imaged “spots,” computers created a 3-D structure of the sample, which allowed scientists to determine its structure. This understanding of the SARS-CoV-2 virus' protein structure helped Pfizer develop a drug that limits the virus' ability to further infect people.
Championing Medical Discovery
While studies are still being done, the efficacy of Paxlovid as a treatment for COVID-19 speaks for itself; access to facilities like APS was critical to its development. The Department of Energy is proud of this significant contribution in the fight against this global pandemic and will continue to champion cutting-edge scientific discoveries to make our world a safer and healthier place for everyone.
COVID-19 vaccines are available for free to everyone 6 months and older living in the United States, regardless of immigration or insurance status. Getting vaccinated is the best way to help protect people from COVID-19. Get vaccinated if you haven't. If you are fully vaccinated, get a booster when you are eligible. Find a COVID-19 vaccine at www.Vaccines.gov.