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Influenza: A case study
Influenza: A case study

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4 Antiviral treatments

Two classes of antiviral drugs are used to combat influenza: neuraminidase inhibitors and M2 protein inhibitors.

  • Why are antibiotics not used to combat influenza?

  • Influenza is a virus. Antibiotics only work against bacteria.

Neuraminidase inhibitors

Recall from Section 2.1 that neuraminidase is an enzyme that is present on the virus envelope and cleaves sialic acid groups found in the polysaccharide coating of many cells (especially the mucus coating of the respiratory tract). Neuraminidase is used to clear a path for the virus to a host cell and facilitates the shedding of virions from an infected cell. Inhibition of neuraminidase therefore helps prevent the spread of virus within a host and its shedding to infect other hosts.

The two main neuraminidase inhibitors currently in clinical use are zanamivir (trade name Relenza) and oseltamivir (trade name Tamiflu). These are effective against influenza A and B, but not influenza C which exhibits a different type of neuraminidase activity that only cleaves 9-O-acetylated sialic acid.

M2 inhibitors

Recall from Table 1 that the influenza M2 protein forms a pore that allows protons into the capsid, acidifying the interior and facilitating uncoating.

Drugs such as amantadine (trade name Symmetrel) and rimantadine (trade name Flumadine) block this pore, preventing uncoating and infection. However, their indiscriminate use in ‘over-the-counter’ cold remedies and farmed poultry has allowed many strains of influenza to develop resistance. Influenza B has a different type of M2 protein which is largely unaffected by these drugs.