The antiviral drug molnupiravir, still in clinical trials, would give doctors an important new treatment and a weapon against coronaviruses and future pandemics. The story of what might become the next major breakthrough in Covid-19 treatment starts on a hotel hallway floor in January 2020, months before you were worried about the virus, weeks before you likely knew it existed. A scientist and a business executive were at a health-care conference in San Francisco, hatching a plan to get a promising drug out of academia and into research trials for regulatory approval. George Painter, president of the Emory Institute for Drug Development, and Wendy Holman, chief executive officer of Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, had met at the Handlery Union Square Hotel to discuss a compound Painter had started developing with funding from the National Institutes of Health. They got so enthusiastic about the possibilities that their meeting ran long and a group of lawyers kicked them out of their room. So they continued on the hall floor, hours after they’d started.

Painter and Holman weren’t talking about targeting Covid at the time. The disease and the coronavirus that causes it, SARS-CoV-2, weren’t major concerns at the J.P. Morgan-run conference, where handshakes and cocktail parties with hundreds of guests were still the norm. Rather, Painter was hoping his drug, molnupiravir, could get more funding to speed up flu studies. Holman was eager to see if it worked on Ebola. That’s the thing about molnupiravir: Many scientists think it could be a broad-spectrum antiviral, effective against a range of threats.

A few days later, Holman arrived in Atlanta to see the labs at Emory and pore through the early data. As she and Painter hashed out the terms of a deal in which Ridgeback would buy the drug and start studying its safety and efficacy in people, Covid was seeping into the public consciousness. By the time Ridgeback announced its acquisition of molnupiravir, on March 19, the world had shut down, and it was clear which threat the drug needed to be tested on right away. Clinical trials for the pill kicked off in April. The next month, Merck & Co., which has a deep history of public-health development work, including on HIV and Ebola, struck a deal to buy rights to molnupiravir from Ridgeback and start the types of large-scale trials that could get it authorized by regulators. Those began in the fall.

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