According to MIT research scientist Todd Rider, we’re closer to such an antiviral than ever before. He’s developed a drug named Draco, which he says has successfully vanquished 15 different viruses in lab trials on mice and human tissue. Those viruses include a quite literal murderer’s row: dengue fever, polio, the swine flu, and the particularly nasty Ebola virus. And, yes, the common cold has also been tested, and Draco was able to get rid of it as well.
So how does Draco work? According to Rider, it combines his backgrounds in engineering and biology, wiring together a pair of proteins. The first protein detects that a virus has entered a cell, which triggers the second protein. In turn, that protein acts as a kill switch, destroying the infected cell to cut off the spread of the virus. That sacrifice represents a grimly practical solution, and so far, it seems to be working.
Either way, even though Rider has already put Draco to work on human tissue, that doesn’t mean we’re ready for human testing. There’s a long road ahead for this drug, which will require tests on multiple rounds of larger animals before it’s ready for human trials. Because viruses and human cells become so closely intertwined during an infection, it can be hard to control for all the side effects of an antiviral.
Draco has some similarities to interferon - they’re both protein-based, which means Draco could also provoke an immune response. According to Rider, there’s been no immune response so far in the mice who have received the drug. That’s good news, but it may not directly correlate to the experience humans would have with the drug.
If Draco or one of the other antivirals works out, it would change the face of global health overnight. The ability to cure minor infections like the common cold could save people from a few days each year of ill health - which across an entire population would add up to a vastly more efficient workforce. And, looking even more broadly, the existence of an all-purpose antiviral would do a lot to reduce the health scares caused by new viral outbreaks, equipping us with a ready-made tool for the next big pandemic.