Several companies and government agencies are currently working on a potential cure or vaccine for COVID-19, including one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, Gilead. The company has been experimenting with a drug that was previously being used as a potential treatment for Ebola, but now researchers are focusing their efforts squarely on limiting the scope of the coronavirus outbreak.
Compared to other potential vaccines and cures, the drug known as Remdesivir is by far the furthest along in the development process. While some scientists have raised concerns about the drug’s initial reaction to the virus, others are hoping it could be the answer healthcare providers have been looking for. Learn more about this new drug and how it could stem the spread and severity of the virus.
The Long Road to a Cure
Gilead has been in the vaccine business for some time. Scientists from the company originally created a drug simply called “3a” that would fight off a range of viruses, including Ebola and a type of coronavirus. Researchers tried using the drug to treat a number of different infections and diseases to see what, if anything, would stick.
Funded by taxpayer dollars and corporate investments, the drug, which became known as Remdesivir, traveled from one research center to the next until it proved effective. Early results suggested the drug could stem the spread of MERS and SARs, but these diseases weren’t spreading around the globe. The company soon fast-tracked the drug once news of the Ebola virus began to spread back in 2014.
However, after numerous rounds of testing, Remdesivir wasn’t as effective as other treatments when it came to treating Ebola. However, Gilead wasn’t ready to give up anytime soon.
When the first coronavirus patient arrived in the U.S. back in January, health officials suggested trying a range of new antiviral treatments, including Remdesivir. The FDA approved the treatment under what’s known as the Compassionate Use Program, which allows the use of unapproved drugs outside of clinical trials under a select group of circumstances. The patient quickly got better after taking the drug, but one case study is not enough to put Remdesivir on every pharmacy shelf in America. Additional testing and clinical trials are still needed to ensure the drug is effective.
Remdesivir is currently moving through the clinical trial phase at lightning speed as the White House and other health officials race to find a cure. Remdesivir is moving further along than other potential cures, thanks to its initial success in fighting the coronavirus. After several lengthy studies, including those previously centered around Ebola, researchers already know the drug isn’t harmful to humans. It has also been able to reduce coronavirus infections in animals, making it the ideal candidate for additional clinical trials.
Much of the research has been supervised by the Antiviral Drug Discovery and Development Center, an NIH-funded program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham that’s been looking for new treatments for emerging viruses. Gilead and the NIH are also working on the clinical trials.
What Is Remdesivir and How Does It Work?
Ebola and the coronavirus are inherently different, so how are researchers using the same drug for both?
Remdesivir attacks the system the virus uses to copy itself inside the body. Coronaviruses are marked by specific gnomes that consist of a strand of RNA. To make copies of itself, the virus uses a molecule called a polymerase to string together the individual building blocks of the viral genome. The drug is designed to mimic the look of the virus, so the polymerase will mistakenly insert the drug into the viral genome instead of the virus. Once the drug gets into the system, it caps off the building of the viral genome, so the virus can no longer copy itself.
Ebola and the coronavirus have similar polymerases, so the drug could be used to treat both; however, it does not appear to work on viruses with different kinds of polymerases.
Based on initial research, the drug appears to work best on newly infected patients, so it can prevent the virus from copying itself as soon as possible. If the patient is already infected with severe symptoms, it means the body’s immune system has already gone into overdrive. The drug can’t reverse this process, but it could limit the severity of COVID-19 in patients with mild symptoms and in turn, ease the stress on local health systems. In the end, it could prevent the virus from becoming fatal or turning into pneumonia.
There are currently five Remdesivir clinical trials for COVID-19. Researchers are looking at treating different stages of infection, while experimenting with different dosing requirements.
Despite these early indications, scientists remain concerned that the drug may not reach the part of the body most vulnerable to the virus: the lungs. Remdesivir is given intravenously into the bloodstream, so it may not prevent respiratory infection. However, researchers are using the clinical trials to address this issue.
When Will It be Available?
Researchers maintain that it could take up to 18 months to perfect the new virus treatment. It also needs to be approved by the FDA and distributed around the country if it’s going to be effective. Even then, the drug may only work on patients with mild symptoms.
Some have also questioned Gilead’s motives. The company has come under fire recently for charging hundreds of dollars for its antiviral HIV medication Truvada, also known as PrEP. Providers worry Gilead may charge a fortune for the drug if Remdesivir proves effective at containing the virus.
While no discussion of pricing has taken place, the company is working on setting up a supply chain if the drug were to go to market. Demand for a cure remains unknown as health officials try to measure the scope of the virus.
This could be a major breakthrough in antiviral treatment. Stay tuned as we learn more.