By Natalie Liu
An American biotech company says it is working with Chinese authorities to determine whether the antiviral drug remdesivir may provide an effective treatment for victims of the fast-spreading coronavirus known as COVID-19. The Chinese researchers hope to have the answer by May 1.
Officials of Gilead Sciences, which invented remdesivir as a treatment for Ebola and another disease, told VOA the company has already initiated two clinical trials among infected patients “to determine the safety and efficacy of remdesivir as a potential treatment for the coronavirus.”
The trials have been warmly welcomed in China, where the nation’s official news agency celebrated the launch with a front page article. Anxious Chinese citizens have noted that the four syllables of remdesivir resemble the phrase as renmin-de-xi-wang, or, people’s hope.
There are also more scientific reasons to be hopeful, including the case of an American coronavirus patient who experienced a speedy recovery in January, just 24 hours after being given remdesivir. Before the drug was administered, his symptoms had shown signs of worsening.
The first trial began enrolling patients on February 6, said a written statement from Gilead, which says it has provided China with “enough doses of remdesivir to treat up to 500 trial participants.” A Shanghai-based media outlet reported having seen a customs clearance form showing that 2,843 boxes of remdesivir arrived in Beijing on February 4.
The next day, a conference dedicated to the official launch of clinical trials took place at the Jinyintan Hospital in Wuhan, led by Dr. Bin Cao and his colleague Dr. Chen Wang, both top scientists practicing at the China-Japan Friendship Hospital in Beijing. Jinyintan Hospital has been treating some of the most critical COVID-19 cases since the outbreak began.
Gilead confirmed the trials are “being coordinated by the China-Japan Friendship Hospital in Beijing.” A filing registered with the U.S. National Library of Medicine lists the Beijing-based Capital Medical University as the trial’s main sponsor and Cao, a specialist in pulmonary critical care at the China-Japan Friendship Hospital, as the “responsible party.”
Research shows promise
In a scientific paper based on animal studies and published last week, scientists found remdesivir to be effective both for the prevention and treatment of the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV,) which is known to bear resemblances to COVID-19.
“Remdesivir prevented disease when administered before infection and improved the condition of macaques [monkeys] when given after the animals already were infected,” said scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana.
Dr. Emmie de Wit, Chief of the Molecular Pathogenesis Unit in the Laboratory of Virology at the Montana facility, told VOA that she and her colleagues conducted their studies and submitted their results for review “well before the world knew of the outbreak in Wuhan.” De Wit said she and her colleagues learned about the coronavirus outbreak on Dec. 31.
In the Wuhan study, participants are divided into two groups — those “who have developed more severe clinical manifestations” such as requiring oxygen, and those who do not require oxygen.
“Patients will receive 10 days of intravenously administered remdesivir. The primary endpoint of both studies involves clinical improvement 28 days after treatment,” according to Gilead. Cao reported that 200 mg of remdesivir would be given to a group of patients on day one, followed by 100 mg once-daily “maintenance doses” for nine additional days.
Patients in a control group were to be given placebos. To ensure objectivity, the identities of the patients receiving the placebos are masked from the participants, care providers, researchers and outcome assessors.
The researchers say they aim to complete the trials by April 3 and evaluate the results by May 1.