Doctors Are Hopeful A Mix Of Old And New Drugs Could Treat Coronavirus

A combination of the antiviral remdesivir and an 80-year-old anti-malaria drug could treat coronavirus patients.
Posted at 5:16 PM, Feb 07, 2020

Remdesivir and chloroquine are two drugs at the head of the race for a coronavirus treatment. What are they and what do they do?

Remdesivir is an antiviral drug from U.S. drugmaker Gilead Sciences. The company tells Newsy it's distributing free doses to be used in two clinical trials in China, starting in mid-February. One study will evaluate remdesivir in coronavirus patients who are infected and in the hospital, but are not displaying "significant clinical manifestations". The other study will evaluate the drug in patients who have developed more severe symptoms, such as people who need supplemental oxygen.

Remdesivir is experimental — it was developed during 2013's Ebola epidemic. It works like some current HIV treatments, by blocking the proteins that coronaviruses need to replicate.   

"In many cases, when we have a new disease, researchers will look to see what the activity of existing drugs is against a new infectious disease. In certain circumstances, where there is reasonable empirical evidence, countries may use those drugs. This is a licensed product, which is licensed for use in a certain disease, but because the drug is considered to be safe and effective in other diseases in a controlled environment, those drugs can be tested against something like coronavirus. But it's extremely important when that is done that the clinical data is collected on the experience of the patients," said Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization's Health Emergencies Programme. 

Remdesivir isn't licensed or medically approved anywhere in the world. Instead, health regulators allow something called compassionate use, or expanded access — they greenlight unproven treatments for patients with potentially life-threatening conditions, when there are no other treatments to try. 

In Washington state, doctors gave Remdesivir to the U.S.'s first coronavirus patient, a 35 year old man, along with drugs to manage his cough and fever. His condition improved.

Chinese researchers also found combining remdesivir with chloroquine, an 80-year-old malaria drug, was "highly effective" in lab tests. Since then, they've accelerated remdesivir into human clinical trials for some of China's coronavirus patients.

China has filed for a patent for the treatment, according to the virology institute in Wuhan. If China gets the patent, other drugmakers and countries would need to get permission to sell it. But Wuhan scientists say for the time being, they won't invoke their patent rights, as long as foreign pharmaceutical companies cooperate on finding a treatment that works.