Researchers Study anti-viral Generics to Treat COVID-19

Trials in progress in US and France

  • Researchers Study anti-viral Generics to Treat COVID-19 (c) David Smart/ShutterstockResearchers Study anti-viral Generics to Treat COVID-19 (c) David Smart/Shutterstock

Several research groups and companies have launched studies to see whether widely available, low-cost generic drugs can be used to help treat the illness caused by the new coronavirus COVID-2019. Along with the malaria treatment hydroxychloroquine, teams are looking at hypertension and anti-viral drugs.

A 1,500-person trial led by the University of Minnesota this week began testing whether the malaria treatment hydroxychloroquine can prevent or reduce the severity of the illness.

Results from a French trial with hydroxychloroquine published this week showed that 25% of patients given the drug still carried the COVID-19 virus after six days, but this compared with 90% of patients who received a placebo.

The malaria drug, which is also being tested in China, Australia and France, was praised earlier this week by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who recovered from this disease in 2000 after taking it.

Jakub Tolar, dean of the University of Minnesota Medical School and vice president for clinical affairs, said results from the university’s trials are likely in “weeks, not months.” Tolar told the Reuters news agency he bought 1,500 doses of hydroxychloroquine for a “laughable” amount of money. “

In addition to having a direct antiviral effect, hydroxychloroquine suppresses the production and release of proteins involved in the inflammatory complications of several viral diseases.

Germany’s Bayer said on Mar. 19 it has donated 3 million tablets of its malaria drug Resochin to the US government for potential use to treat COVID-19. The chloroquine phosphate drug is approved for malaria, but not for the fast-spreading coronavirus.

Bayer said it is working with “appropriate agencies” on an emergency use authorization for its use in the US, thereby thanking US president Donald Trump for the “opportunity to donate.” It did not mention donations for Europe.

The University of Minnesota this week also launched two trials with the hypertension drug losartan, an angiotensin receptor 1 (AT1R) blocker that scientists believe could play a role in blocking an enzyme used by the virus to bind to cells.

One of the tests is designed to measure whether losartan reduces the risk of organ failure for COVID-19 patients who have been hospitalized, while the other is looking at whether the drug can limit the need for hospitalizations.

Elsewhere, biopharma groups such as Gilead Sciences are working to develop treatments for COVID-19,  Gilead’s experimental antiviral drug remdesivir, which the New England Journal of Medicine was successfully used on a first patient infected by the novel coronavirus, is being given to hospitalized patients via intravenous infusion over several days.

Gilead is now running two international trials with the drug that previously failed as a potential Ebola treatment, and the NIH is testing patients in a US trial.

Andre Kalil, infectious disease specialist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the US trial’s lead investigator, said this week that results from a remdesivir trial in China could also be available by early April.

 “We are focusing on high risk patients,” said Kalil “Our hope is that remdesivir will show that patients will be improving faster.”

Several other drugmakers, including Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and Eli Lilly of the US, along with Takeda Pharmaceutical, are working on coronavirus treatment candidates, but according to reports human testing of their drugs has not yet started.

Anti-inflammatory drug such as Regeneron’s Kevzara and Roche’s Actemra have been used to treat the lung inflammation caused by COVID-19. Roche is now working with the FDA to start a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled phase 3 clinical trial that will study the drug in hospitalized patients with severe COVID-19 pneumonia.

Roche and its partner, the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, plan to officially begin enrolling patients in early April in different parts of the world, including the US.

Apparently dashing one of the drugs industry’s biggest hopes, Chinese investigators reported this week that Kaletra, AbbVie’s HIV drug combining  antiviral drugs lopinavir and ritonavir, had failed to improve outcomes for seriously ill COVID-19 patients.

One pharmaceutical industry analyst, Evercore ISI’s Umer Raffat, told international media that results might have been better, had the drug been administered earlier in the disease’s progression. Other experts said, however, that Kaletra’s inability to cut viral load was worrisome.

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