Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Vaccines, Antibodies and Drug Libraries. The Possible COVID-19 Treatments Researchers Are Excited About

By Alice Park

April 14, 2020 
1:06 PM EDT

In early April, about four months after a new, highly infectious coronavirus was first identified in China, an international group of scientists reported encouraging results from a study of an experimental drug for treating the viral disease known as COVID-19.

It was a small study, reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, but showed that remdesivir, an unapproved drug that was originally developed to fight Ebola, helped 68% of patients with severe breathing problems due to COVID-19 to improve; 60% of those who relied on a ventilator to breathe and took the drug were able to wean themselves off the machines after 18 days.

Repurposing drugs designed to treat other diseases to now treat COVID-19 is one of the quickest ways to find a new therapy to control the current pandemic. Also in April, researchers at Vanderbilt University enrolled the first patients in a much-anticipated study of hydroxychloroquine. It’s already approved to treat malaria and certain autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus but hasn’t been studied, until now, against coronavirus. Yet the medication has become a sought-after COVID-19 treatment after first Chinese doctors, and then President Trump touted its potential in treating COVID-19. The data from China is promising but not conclusive, and infectious disease experts, including Trump’s coronavirus task force scientific advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, aren’t convinced it’s ready for prime time yet in America’s emergency rooms and intensive care units.

But doctors facing an increasing flood of patients say they don’t have time to wait for definitive data. In a survey of 5,000 physicians in 30 countries conducted by health care data company Sermo, 44% prescribed hydroxychloroquine for their COVID-19 patients, and 38% believed it was helping. Such off-label use in using a drug approved to treat one disease to treat another is allowed, especially during a pandemic when no other therapies are available. A similar percentage said remdesivir was “very or extremely effective” in treating COVID-19. (Although remdesivir is not approved for treating any disease, the Food and Drug Administration granted special authorization for doctors to use it to treat the sickest COVID-19 patients.)

That explains the unprecedented speed with which the hydroxychloroquine study—and others like it—are popping up around the world. There are no treatments proven to disable SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease, which means all the options scientists are exploring are still very much in the trial-and-error stage. Still, they are desperate for anything that might provide even a slim chance of helping their patients survive, which is why studies are now putting dozens of different therapies and a handful of vaccines to the test. The normal road to developing new drugs is often a long one—and one that frequently meanders into dead ends and costly mistakes with no guarantees of success. But given the speed at which SARS-CoV-2 is infecting new hosts on every continent across the globe, those trials are being ushered along at a breakneck pace, telescoping the normal development and testing time by as much as half.

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