What to Know About Interferon Lambda for Potential COVID-19 Treatment
When the COVID-19 pandemic was first recognized in 2020, scientists rushed to find a solution for preventing and treating the illness caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2. In part, they’ve made remarkable strides in a short amount of time: We now have strong, widely available vaccines that more than 269 million Americans have received. Yet a giant question mark looms over the future of COVID-19 treatment. Once-exciting monoclonal antibody therapies like Evusheld have been rendered largely ineffective by newer variants of the virus. Meanwhile, the antiviral medication Paxlovid, while effective, isn’t easy to access for many people.Now there’s a new injectable drug in development that’s generating some buzz: It’s called pegylated interferon lambda. Extremely scientific-sounding name aside, the clinical trial results are promising. A new study published in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in early February included 931 people who received the interferon lambda treatment; 1,018 people were given a placebo. A majority of the participants—83%, to be exact—had been vaccinated against COVID-19. During the study, 25 people in the interferon group and 57 people in the placebo group landed in the hospital with COVID-19—that’s a 51% difference in mainly vaccinated people, a group that already has some protection against the virus. The researchers concluded that the odds of visiting an emergency room or being hospitalized with COVID-19, regardless of dominant virus variants and vaccination status, were “significantly lower” in those who received the treatment compared to the placebo. “This is a very promising finding,” infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, who was not directly involved with the study, tells SELF. Thomas Russo, MD, a professor and the chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, who was not directly with the involved study, agrees. “This is really exciting,” he tells SELF. “It’s been long-awaited.”Despite the positive results, experts aren’t sold on this treatment’s potential for swift Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. Here’s what we know about it so far.The interferon lambda treatment is given via injection.The interferon lambda treatment has already been compared to Paxlovid—an antiviral medication that’s been authorized for use in high-risk people who have moderate to severe COVID-19—but there are some differences between the two. First, interferon lambda, which also has antiviral effects, is administered via a single injection. Those who are prescribed Paxlovid—which includes two separate, generic drugs, nirmatrelvir and ritonavir—take three pills by mouth twice daily for five days. “The shot may be off-putting for some,” Dr. Russo admits—but in comparison, a single shot is much quicker than taking 30 pills in less than a week.These two treatments work differently in the body too. Paxlovid inhibits an enzyme that SARS-CoV-2 needs in order to continue taking over cells in the body. It essentially prevents the virus from setting up shop in healthy cells, eventually squashing the infection.Here’s how interferon lambda works instead: Interferons are proteins—which can be made by the body’s white blood cells or modified in a lab—that play a key role in stimulating the immune system to fight a virus, as well as other types of illnesses like certain cancers and autoimmune diseases. (The interferon lambda treatment used in the NEJM study was provided for free by a pharmaceutical company.) Essentially, an injection of interferon lambda can help support your immune system by delivering more of these critical infection-fighting proteins, Dr. Russo explains.